Stop the Madness: Implement New Mercury Standards

By Stefanie Herweck                    The lunacy of the Mad Hatter, pouring tea and posing riddles about ravens and writing desks, has entertained Americans since Disney (and later Johnny Depp) brought him to the silver screen. 

Lewis Carroll’s character arose from the phrase “mad as a hatter,” which was commonly heard in 1865, when Alice in Wonderland was first published.  At that time mercury was used to cure felt for hats, and mercury exposure caused hatmakers to exhibit confused speech, distorted vision, twitching limbs, muscle tremors, extreme excitability, and hallucinations.

Despite this obvious impact on human health, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the United States and other countries enacted regulations to limit mercury exposure, both in workplaces like the hatters’ and the population at large.

Since then studies have shown that even low levels of mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.  It can also harm the developing nervous system of unborn and young children and cause learning disabilities.   

Ingesting just over one-tenth of an ounce of mercury can kill a 150 pound adult.

Now that we recognize that mercury is a powerful neurotoxin with devastating effects on human health, it should be a no-brainer—we should do everything we can to keep mercury out of the environment, so that we can keep it out of human bodies.

But that has not been happening.  In the United States coal-fired power plants are by far the largest source of mercury pollution, and they have been allowed to continue to spew huge amounts of poisonous mercury: each year they emit 48 tons.  The mercury that pours from their smokestacks falls to the earth when it rains, where it enters our rivers and lakes.  There it is converted to methylmercury, which is an organic form of mercury that accumulates in the bodies of fish, as well as the bodies of humans who eat the fish or drink the contaminated water.

The alarming results of this are found in study after study.  One in twelve pregnant women has high enough mercury levels in her body to harm her fetus.  As many as 300,000 babies per year are at increased risk of learning disabilities as a result of prenatal mercury exposure.  The risk of autism in children goes up in relation to their home’s proximity to a coal plant.

Texans are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of the poison since Texas emits more mercury than any other state.

Coal-fired power companies like Luminant Energy, the largest coal mining company in the state and owner of the dirtiest power plants, have given generously to Governor Perry’s campaigns over the years, and he has done everything in his power to return the favor. 

Rather than working to protect Texans’ health and our environment, Perry’s appointees at the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have helped power plants get around environmental regulations and fast-track new construction.  Last year TCEQ was found to have violated the law to help the Las Brisas coal plant look as though it would be in compliance with the Clean Air Act when it applied for a permit. 

As a result of Perry and the TCEQ working on behalf of polluters instead of the people, coal-fired plants in Texas spewed out, coal-fired plants in Texas spewed out 16,350 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in 2009 alone.

But this month the Obama administration could finally bring Texans the clean air and clean water they deserve.  Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have revised air-quality standards to comply with the Clean Air Act and limit the amount of toxins such as mercury that power plants can emit.  The proposed standards would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury by 91 percent, hydrochloric acid by 91 percent and particulate matter by 55 percent.  It is up to President Obama to confirm these new standards and keep these deadly poisons out of our air, our water, and our bodies.

The power industry fought to block these safeguards for decades, and worked closely with the Bush administration to set standards illegally low.  This past September Republicans in the US House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at delaying restrictions on power plants’ mercury emissions.  Ignoring the health benefits, they said the regulations would cost too much.  Thankfully, the Senate has not taken up this assault on public health.

It is up to President Obama to ignore the pressure, and the money, of industry lobbyists and finally put the health of our children ahead of coal companies’ profits.  The question is not the cost of electricity; it is who pays the cost.  Dirty coal may produce a kilowatt of electricity more cheaply than clean energy technologies, but the difference in price is paid at the doctor’s office, and in the suffering of children who live with neurological damage and learning disabilities brought on by mercury poisoning. 

For too long the United States, and especially the state of Texas, has sacrificed the health of our children for cheap energy and coal industry profits.  It is time for President Obama to bring an end to this madness, stand up for our children, and enact strong mercury regulations.

You can sign Sierra Club’s online petition to limit Mercury emissions here.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group.  She lives in McAllen. This article was previously published in the Rio Grande Guardian.

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