Get tough on mercury emissions

The president must prove he cares about more than money from polluting industries.

There’s a reason that, in organic chemistry lab, breaking one of those mercury thermometers required an embarrassing confession to the teaching assistant and a complicated cleanup. Mercury in the environment is hazardous to your health.

But unlike in lab, mercury poisoning most commonly occurs through eating contaminated fish. Coal-burning power plants send mercury into the air and it is deposited into waterways. The mercury moves up the aquatic food chain and eventually contaminates the fish we eat. Young children and fetuses are especially susceptible to mercury-related problems, especially neurological damage. Cardiovascular and kidney problems are also common with exposure.

According to Environmental Protection Agency scientists, technology exists to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2008. It would require installing mandatory control technologies in all coal-burning plants, which is expensive, but well worth the reduced output. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to have no problem compromising with industry lobbyists on the issue. The administration is proposing reducing emissions by only 70 percent by 2018, and including a provision that would allow cleaner-burning plants to “sell” emissions “credits” to higher-emissions plants.

This arrangement works for sulfur dioxide, a lighter molecule that disperses across states; but mercury is a heavier emission and tends to stay close to where it is released. Given the severity of mercury-related health problems and that the technology is available to significantly reduce mercury emissions across the board, the Bush administration cannot continue to cater to the industry.

Scientists on a National Academy of Sciences panel, as well as environmentalists and politicians, found that White House staffers significantly downplayed mercury’s negative effects in a 2000 academy report. These subtle but important changes attempt to discredit studies on mercury exposure and justify the administration’s blatant disregard for public health.

The science behind mercury-related problems and the technology to improve the situation is solid. The president must prove he cares about more than money from polluters and enforce stricter emissions standards across the country.