Cleaveland: Mercury pollution is a persistent danger for children

Cleaveland: Mercury pollution is a persistent danger for children

January 13th, 2019 by Dr. Clif Cleaveland in Opinion Columns

FILE - In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming. The Trump administration targeted an Obama-era regulation credited with helping dramatically reduce toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, saying the benefits to human health and the environment may not be worth the cost of the regulation. The 2011 Obama administration rule, called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion clean-up of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

Photo by J. David Ake

On Dec. 28, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to cancel regulations that govern the release into the air of mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Citizens have 60 days to comment on the proposed, needless rollback.

Termed the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, the Obama administration contended that the regulations would reduce diseases related to mercury and other pollutants emitted from smokestacks. Most power plants have complied, spending billions of dollars to remove those toxins. Some plants were shuttered. Mercury emissions have decreased an estimated 85 percent as a result of those actions.

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

EPA, now directed by Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, contends that the cost of complying with the regulations is excessive for uncertain health benefits. Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for the coal industry before his Senate confirmation in April 2018 to serve as deputy to Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July 2018.

Coal-fired power plants have been the main source of mercury pollution in the U.S. and the world. Gold mining, some metal-smelting operations and chemical plants that manufacture chlorine release lesser amounts of mercury. Volcanic eruptions and natural erosion of rocky surfaces account for a small percent of mercury release. Forest fires also release mercury into the air.

When released in smoke, mercury may travel hundreds of miles before settling over land, fresh water and oceans. Once deposited, micro-organisms slowly convert elemental mercury to highly soluble, organic methyl mercury (MM). Both mercury and MM may accumulate in the sediment of rivers and lakes. Disruption of that sediment by flooding or dredging can release significant amounts of the toxins.

Mercury accumulates in aquatic life by a process of "bio-magnification." Minute organisms take in MM. Progressively larger fish eat the smaller creatures. Large, older fish and sharks accumulate MM to the extent that their meat contain extremely high concentrations compared to surrounding fresh or oceanic water.

MM is readily absorbed from the human (and animal) digestive tract and is dispersed throughout the organs of the body, including the central nervous system. MM crosses the placenta to enter the fetus and its nervous system, and therein lies a major problem. The rapidly developing fetal brain as well as the brains of infants and children are especially vulnerable to MM's toxic effects. MM is also carried in the milk of nursing mothers.

MM toxicity leads to slowed thinking, impaired coordination, and difficulty paying attention. Those changes may not show up for months.

The highest concentrations of MM occur in shark, swordfish, big-eye or ahi tuna, king and Spanish mackerel, tile fish from the Gulf of Mexico, and orange roughy. Women who are pregnant and nursing mothers should avoid those fish. Because MM lingers in the body for months, women who are planning a pregnancy should avoid those species as well.

Localized mercury and HH pollution prompt advisories by states to avoid either certain species or all fish from specific lakes and streams. The 2018 Tennessee Fishing Guide includes a listing that is updated annually. The sad conclusion from that data is that many Tennessee waters contain harmful levels of MM and other toxins. Determining which fishing sites to avoid is complex. Unstated are the sources of the polluting mercury.

Another problem is the uncertain origin and feeding practices for imported farmed-fish. Who monitors international fish farms for MM pollution? Is the food fed to those fish free of mercury and MM?

Against this background of uncertainty, I believe it wise for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as very young children to avoid or to strictly limit seafood intake. The species mentioned above should not be eaten.

Until mercury emissions are permanently limited by coal-fired power plants around the world, mercury and MM pollution of aquatic life will be a continuing problem. Mercury and MM that is already in the aquatic food chain will persist for many years.

This is no time to relax U.S. restrictions on mercury emissions. Since most power plants are in compliance, what is the point unless EPA plans to argue that health considerations should not be factored into environmental regulations.

Contact Clif Cleaveland, a retired physician, at ccleaveland@timesfreepress.com.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com


Loading...