This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2011.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued 946 pages of new rules, requiring that U.S. power plants sharply reduce (already low) emissions of mercury and 83 other air pollutants. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claims that, while the regulations will cost electricity producers $10.9 billion annually, they will save 17,000 lives and generate up to $140 billion in health benefits.
There is no factual basis for these assertions. To build its case, EPA systematically ignored evidence and ignored clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.
Mercury (Hg) has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment. A 2009 study found numerous spikes (and drops) in mercury deposition in Antarctic ice over the past 650,000-years. Mercury is found in air, water, rocks, soil and in trees, which absorb it from the environment. This is why our bodies evolved with proteins and antioxidants that help protect us from this and other potential contaminants.
A further defense comes from selenium, which is found in fish and animals. Its strong attraction to mercury molecules protects fish and people against buildups of methylmercury, mercury’s biologically active and more toxic form. Thus, the 200,000,000 tons of mercury naturally present in seawater have never posed a danger to any living being, even though they could theoretically be converted into methylmercury.
Modern technologies enable us to detect infinitesimal amounts in air and water. However, quantities of mercury measured in lake waters are often no more than 0.00000001 gram of mercury per liter. Lab technicians typically wear special garments when measuring mercury levels, not to protect themselves – but to ensure accurate measurements, because even breathing on a sample can triple a reading!
How do America’s coal-burning power plants enter into the picture?
The latest government, university and independent studies reveal that those power plants emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year. However, US forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year; cremation of human remains discharges 26 tpy; Chinese power plants eject 400 tpy; and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out 9,000-10,000 additional tons per year!
All these emissions enter the global atmospheric system and become part of the US air mass.
Thus, US power plants account for less than 0.5% of all the mercury in the air Americans breathe. Even eliminating every milligram of this mercury will do nothing about the other 99.5% in America’s atmosphere.
And yet, in the face of these minuscule risks, EPA nevertheless demands that utility companies spend billions every year retrofitting coal-fired power plants that produce half of all US electricity, and 70-98% of electricity in twelve states. Its regulators simultaneously ignore the positive results of medical studies that clearly show its new restrictions are not needed and will not improve people’s health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which actively monitors mercury exposure, blood mercury counts for US women and children decreased steadily 1999-2008, placing today’s counts well below the already excessively “safe” level established by EPA.
A 17-year evaluation of mercury risk to babies and children, by the Seychelles Children Development Study, found “no measurable cognitive or behavioral effects” in children who eat several servings of ocean fish every week, much more than most Americans do.
The World Health Organization and US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry assessed these findings in setting mercury risk standards that are 2-3 times less restrictive than EPA’s. Under WHO and ATSDR guidelines, no American children are even remotely at risk from mercury.
EPA ignored these findings. Instead, the agency based its “safe” mercury criteria on a study of Faroe Islanders, whose diet is far removed from our own. They eat few fruits and vegetables, but do feast on pilot whale meat and blubber that is laced with mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – but very low in selenium. The study has limited relevance to US populations.
Finally, EPA maintains that mercury deposition, its conversion to methylmercury, and MeHg accumulation in fish and humans is a simple process that can be controlled by curtailing emissions from US power plants. However, mercury emissions (from all sources) and raw mercury levels in fresh or ocean waters are only part of the story.
Complex, nonlinear interactions among at least 50 natural variables control the biological and chemical processes that govern elemental mercury conversion to methylmercury and MeHg accumulation in fish. Those variables, and selenium levels in fish tissue, are beyond anyone’s ability to control.
As a result, the EPA’s actions can be counted on to achieve only one thing – which is to further advance the Obama administration’s oft-stated goal of penalizing hydrocarbon use, making coal-based electricity prices “skyrocket,” and driving a transition to unreliable renewable energy.
The proposed standards will do nothing to reduce exaggerated threats from mercury and other air pollutants. Indeed, the rules will worsen, rather than improve America’s health – especially for young children and women of child-bearing age. Not only will they raise heating, air conditioning and food costs; they will scare people away from nutritious fish that should be in everyone’s diet.
America needs affordable, reliable electricity. It needs better health and nutrition. It needs an EPA that focuses on real risks, instead of wasting hard-earned taxpayer and consumer dollars fabricating dangers and evidence.
Willie Soon is a natural scientist with strong expertise in mercury and public health issues. Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and Congress of Racial Equality. Dr. Soon’s full critique of EPA’s rules will be published at http://www.AffordablePowerAlliance.org in mid-June.
“The myth of killer mercury” was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2011. See: