Air Date: Week of December 19, 1997
The Environmental Protection Agency has just completed one of the most comprehensive reports ever done on the sources of mercury and its effects on human health and wildlife. It says that about 80,000 pregnant women and half a million children are getting too much mercury mostly from canned tuna. The Mercury report which Congress requested in 1990 was completed a year and a half ago, but the EPA was reluctant to make it public. Finally a court ordered the report released this December 19th. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has led the effort to make the study public. Steve Curwood asked the Senator why there was so much delay.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Mercury is a powerful poison with harmful effects on the human reproductive system, the thyroid, and the brain. A millionth of a gram can be a dangerous daily dose for a child. Yet every year around 200 tons of the metal are spewed into the environment. The biggest offenders are incinerators, especially medical waste incinerators, which burn the mercury and fluorescent lightbulbs, thermometers, and batteries. Coal contains minute quantities of mercury. The stacks of power plants can send it hundreds of miles before it falls back to Earth. It then trickles into rivers, lakes, and the oceans, and makes its way up the food chain. The Environmental Protection Agency has just completed one of the most comprehensive reports ever done on the sources of mercury and its effects on human health and wildlife. It says that about 80,000 pregnant women and three million children, the most susceptible groups, are getting too much mercury, mostly from fish. Canned tuna has more mercury than any other commonly eaten fish, and the report shows that a young child consuming a tuna sandwich a day would eat up to 4 times the safe level. The Mercury Report, which Congress requested back in 1990, was completed a year and a half ago, but the EPA was reluctant to make it public. Finally, a court ordered the report released on December 19. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, has led the effort to make the study public. I asked the senator why there was so much delay.
LEAHY: It's taken far too long. If you look at it, it was actually due way back in November of 1994, but there have been a lot of differences between the various agencies, the Federal agencies. Then the fishing and electric utilities industry and others tried to delay the report. Obviously, this report, if it's followed, is going to bring about a lot of changes from our fishing industry. It's going to take changes in the utilities industry. I think everybody knew that, and everybody's worried how they might come out in the report.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering. You live in Vermont. I know this is a national problem. But does Vermont have a special problem with mercury as well?
LEAHY: Oh, we do. We've seen an increased rate of mercury accumulation in fish. We've seen it in some birds like loons. We see it in our waters. We have mercury, actually, throughout the northeast. We have it depositing higher than in other parts of the country in our lakes and our forests. And the indications are that a lot comes from other parts of the country, that the airborne mercury pollution from the Midwest, either their electric utilities and others, don't affect the areas that are creating the electricity, but rather the waste of it comes down in our lakes and our forests, and we bear the brunt of the health problems.
CURWOOD: What's significant about this report now from the EPA? I mean, we've known for a long time that even tiny amounts of mercury can be very dangerous to human health.
LEAHY: Well, there's no way that you can set up an overall strategy to stop this, unless you have a report like this and know exactly what is involved. We have an overall pollution control strategy for most of the major pollutants. We do not for mercury. And finally, the states and the Congress can get together and say here's an overall strategy to control it. We know that there's dangers. We know that children are going to face special dangers. Now, we're going to know where the mercury pollutants come from. And if we know where they come from, the next obvious step would be to devise a strategy to stop them.
CURWOOD: EPA is talking about redoubling its efforts to reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment. They want to require power plants and incinerators to reduce their output and to discourage the use of mercury in products. Do you think this is enough to do the job?
LEAHY: I think that's a good start, and I think that we should be doing that. And certainly, if you're a parent, for example, in the northeast, and you're wondering just what to feed your child, you've got to be greatly concerned about it. But eventually, we're going to need legislation. And it's going to be controversial at first, because it's going to appear to pit one part of the nation against the other. But it's not. What it's saying is, we want a better future for our children.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with me today. Patrick Leahy is a democratic senator from Vermont. Thank you, sir.
LEAHY: Okay. Take care.
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