More polychlorinated biphenyls, please

December 5, 2006 at 2:41 pm (Sam's Posts)

I just read this article about mercury consumption in my foster home state, Pennsylvania. Now, I should be wary of the fact that this came from an insert in UPenn’s daily newspaper, entitled ‘The Green Times’. Nonetheless, it was somewhat illuminating.

Pennsylvania is the 2nd highest mercury emitter in the nation, and 80% of mercury is produced from 36 coal plants within its borders.

Allegedly, once you ingest mercury, you’re done. It’s not leaving your body, ever. Also, it’s a neurotoxin, especially dangerous to pregnancies due to its ease of traversing the placenta and entering the fetal brain.

There are several things being done to protect the people. One is, state advisories against more than a half a pound of Pennsylvania-caught sport fish per week. Another is, national advisories against certain’danger’ fish like swordfish and king mackerel. These messages might help a little, if they were brought to the public’s attention. Up to now, though, I’ve never heard anything about these advisories. I’ll bet nobody has.

Then, of course, there is the whole emissions trading deal. Mercury is no longer classified as a toxic pollutant (a federal decision), which means companies that produce a lot of it can buy emissions credits from cleaner companies instead of forking over the capital to restructure and reduce their own emissions. So the hazard of mercury exposure is totally out of equilibrium. Areas with more coal plants, or more generally, older technology, get hosed, while new money reaps all the benefits of the emissions credit trade. I’ve read plenty of times about claims that emissions trading is only marginally effective, but this is the first time I’ve been told that its effect isn’t just marginal, but highly uneven.

Good for the governor, Ed Rendell, that he is pushing for more rigid restrictions and a quicker plan for emissions reduction. Among other things, he’s trying to block Pennsylvania plants from trading in other states. Apparently states have a good measure of power to build on (or move or away from) existing federal policy. And this is where the change is going to have to come.

So to sum this rambling up, two things: Food health advisories could use a better accessing strategy; and the state legislature has a significant role to play in environmental health.



  1. msoule said,

    Sam, awesome post. I wanted to expand on something you didn’t.

    It seems like there is waning concern about the effects of mercury on the human body. Is that what I’m gathering form this post or am I making things up? This is kind of disturbing to me because it seems that the motives for coming out and saying that mercury is not as dangerous as we once thought. Now I am not faithless enough to truly believe that the government would relax its standards on mercury without strong biomedical evidence.

    Well, maybe my skepticism is based in reality. An article from the Southern Environmental Law Center ( says that the medical community is up in arms about the change of the definition. The Physicians for Social Responsibility, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association and American Academy of Pediatrics are all protesting the change. The American Public Health Association? Aren’t they the ones who take care of the health of the community at large? And they think this is a bad idea?


    The article goes on:
    “Mercury is a toxic pollutant that is linked to permanent damage to the central nervous system. Unborn children, breast-fed infants and children exposed to mercury are at risk for lowered intelligence and learning disabilities. Adults exposed to even low amounts of mercury may also be at higher risk for altered sensation, impaired hearing and vision, and motor disturbances linked directly to exposure from eating contaminated fish.”

    And we can’t get it out of our bodies? Great! I’m all for a new generation of American children with lowered intelligence and learning disabilities. Speaking of which, has anyone else been tuned in to the recent flood of news articles on autism? There are a shocking number of autistic children in the US. And we’re loosening restrictions on toxic heavy metals?

    So remember that the federal government that Sam is referring to is the Environmental Protection Agency that seems like it can be powerful (and protective of our public health!) under environmentally concerned presidencies. I remember the EPA was gutted when Bush II took office. Here are the fruits of that labor.

    For the love of God, when will we realize that the health of our people and the earth is not worth profits for a few coal plant owners or even the jobs of a few working-class people who work in them?

  2. sstolper said,

    Right. There doesn’t seem to be any acceptable explanation of why mercury has been downgraded from ‘toxic pollutant – stop producing it’ to ‘toxic commodity – trade it to someone else’. I refrained from voicing my distaste for the Bush administration’s role in that first post, largely because we already know where he stands on environmental issues. Suffice to say, he pulled the wool over our eyes on this one, and we will be stupider for it in the long run. This issue needs to be brought to the fore on the state level, straightaway.

  3. msoule said,

    Who do we talk to? How can we spread the word? Should we call Rick Santorum? The EPA?

    So I just went to the basic info on mercury on the EPA site and this is what I found:

    “People in the U.S. are mainly exposed to methylmercury. . . . Methylmercury is more toxic than elemental mercury. . . . Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb. some mothers with no symptoms of nervous system damage gave birth to infants with severe disabilities (due to methylmercury poisoning).”

    So there isn’t evidence of lower standards of what is considered dangerous, at least they haven’t been updated on the website.

    I also found this:

    “On March 15, 2005, EPA issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule, which creates performance standards and establishes permanent, declining caps on mercury emissions. The Clean Air Mercury Rule marks the first time EPA has ever regulated mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.”

    That’s well within the range of the Bush administration, yet it seems to be environmentally protective. Even environmentally activist! That gave me pause. Cover-up? Wildly untrue accusations by environmentalists?

    Hm. Google can help!

    Here’s what I found on the Environmental News Service website (

    “Nine States Sue EPA Seeking Tougher Mercury Rule (March 31, 2005)

    The suit, filed Wednesday by New Jersey on behalf of the coalition, challenges an EPA rule that removes power plants from the list of pollution sources subject to stringent pollution controls under the federal Clean Air Act.

    EPA announced the rule on March 15, along with a second rule establishing a cap-and-trade system for regulating mercury emissions. The trading scheme will allow some plants to increase mercury emissions, creating hot spots of local and regional mercury deposition. Members of the coalition also plan to file suit challenging the cap-and-trade rule once it is published in the Federal Register.”

    Well! The EPA site didn’t mention removing power plants from that list. At least not as far as I could see. So I looked farther. Well, I found a record of a spat over changes in mercury rules between state attorneys general and the EPA. They did consider the suits brought by the states and found that the evidence wasn’t sufficient to crunch the power producers. They also issued a frank statement.

    As of May 15, 2005, “[The EPA determined] that regulation of electric utility steam generating units under section 112 of the Clean Air Act was neither necessary nor appropriate (the section 112 rule)”

    REALLY? Well, I kept reading and kept getting more horrified. If you want to read the EPA’s decision, here it is. I’m pretty sure that the main source of methylmercury is power plant emissions. Again, from the EPA site: “When coal is burned, the mercury contained within the coal is released in the combustion system and can be found in three main chemical forms: elemental mercury, oxidized mercury and particulate-bound mercury.” ( From the little chemistry I know, I bet that the mercury released in the burning is highly reactive with other organic compunds being released in the burning process. Methane is probably one of those products. Methylation ensues, no? Somehow this process is not supposed to be regulated?

    Covering up the really dangerous decisions they make is politicking and the EPA should be ashamed and we should be scared that they are trying to hide this stuff from us.

    Can we have some environmentalists in the EPA, please? What are they doing if they’re not protecting us? Boy, am I mad.

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