By Ernie Florence and Rebecca Stanfield
If you're like most Americans, you probably try hard to incorporate heart-healthy sources of protein in your diet, by, for example, eating fish. Therefore, there was good reason to be alarmed when health agencies in 44 states, including Illinois issued fish consumption warnings due to mercury contamination in 2003, a staggering mercury increase of 63 percent in the last 11 years. Mercury pollution threatens to render this key part of our diet too dangerous for children, pregnant women and women who may become pregnant.
Despite the increased understanding of the dangers of mercury in our food chain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently unveiled dangerously weak rules regulating mercury emissions from power plants, the largest source of the toxin. In the absence of strong federal safeguards, parents are forced to choose between a healthy diet containing fish and the health of their newborns who could be harmed by mercury exposure caused by fish consumption.
A neurotoxin, mercury can destroy, damage or impair the functioning of human nerve tissue. Mercury passes easily from a mother to her child through the placenta and breast milk. Fetal mercury exposure affects the developing brain, causing vision and hearing difficulties, delays in the development of motor skills and language acquisition, and later, lowered IQ points, problems with memory and attention deficits. These developmental problems may translate into learning difficulties once children are in school, resulting in lifelong consequences.
Because Illinois is home to more than 20 large, older, coal-burning power plants, our state's power industry emits more mercury than its counterparts in all but four other states. More than 767,000 miles of U.S. riverways, 13.1 million acres of lakes, and 70 percent of the coastal waters off the contiguous 48 states were under advisory for mercury contamination in 2003, including all bodies of water in Illinois.
In recognition of mercury's danger to public health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and EPA last year issued a special joint advisory urging all women of child-bearing age and young children to limit their consumption of certain species of fish. With a growing number of studies linking nutrition with the healthy development and growth of children, however, the EPA cannot simply refer America's parents to local fish contamination advisories.
To reduce the prevalence of mercury contamination as a factor in learning disabilities, we must reduce mercury in fish; the only way to do that is to reduce the amount of mercury released into our environment.
Unfortunately, in March, the EPA announced new rules to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants that fall far short of what is needed to protect children's health. Recent reports by EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee, the Government Accountability Office, and EPA's inspector general strongly criticized the plan, which allows power companies to wait until after 2020 before having to install on their plants technologies specifically designed to reduce mercury emissions. Such technologies have been in use on municipal and medical waste incinerators for nearly a decade and have been successfully demonstrated in at least 16 full-scale tests at power plants.
As if this weren't bad enough, a recent Washington Post article revealed that not only has the EPA been making decisions based on questionable science, but the agency has been stifling public debate on how to best address mercury contamination as well by suppressing a study by Harvard University examining the potential public health benefits of stronger mercury protections. Fourteen states, including Illinois, have sued or announced their intent to sue EPA over the rule.
Congress should not let public policy be made based on bad science, questionable economics and limited debate. A 2004 EPA study found that as many as 1 in 6 American women already have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood -- putting at risk an estimated 15 out of every 100 babies born in the United States each year.
Illinois Senators Durbin and Obama have supported having a vote on the floor of the Senate to disapprove the U.S. EPA actions that will allow power plant operators to avoid mercury controls. But Illinois does not have to wait for the Washington policymakers to protect our health. Under the Clean Air Act, Gov. Blagojevich has the authority to adopt stronger mercury rules for Illinois, as three states have already done. We encourage the governor to move ahead with mercury emissions rules for Illinois plants that reflect the best pollution control technology available, which can capture 90 percent of mercury before it gets into our environment and onto our dinner tables.
Ernie Florence is president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois and Rebecca Stanfield is director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy organization. This article was originally printed in the Sun Times Editorial section.
Various advocacy groups met with Illinois State Representatives in July 2005 at the State of Illinois Building to discuss the impact of mercury pollution on citizens of Illinois. LDA of Illinois Board Member Karen Tipp presented on mercury's impact on brain development and the lifetime challenges of those who have learning disabilities, their families, their schools and communities at large. Also, Tipp discussed the role mercury may have in the increasing prevalence rates of disorders such as attention deficit disorder and autism. In addition to Tipp, representatives of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, IL Preg, an organization advocating for pregnant women, as well as many other groups gave 5 minute presentations.
Despite the importance of this issue, no advisory group has met to discuss the impact of mercury in three years in Illinois. The meeting was part of a response to pending litigation regarding mercury's impact on people and animals. Further, the meeting served to foster cooperation amongst advocacy groups on this issue in light of efforts by some to rescind the Clean Air Act of 2000. LDA of Illinois plans to stay involved in these efforts to prevent learning disabilities by helping in the effort to minimize environmental toxins.