Congress and Gov. Blagojevich should
act to eliminate mercury contamination
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Submitted by Ernie Florence,
president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois,
and Rebecca Stanfield, director of the Illinois Public Interest
[AUG. 27, 2005]
CHICAGO -- If you're like most Americans, you
probably try hard to incorporate heart-healthy sources of protein in
your diet -- for example, by eating fish. Therefore, there is good
reason to be alarmed when health agencies in 44 different states,
including Illinois, issued fish consumption warnings due to mercury
contamination in 2003 -- a staggering increase of 63 percent in the
past 11 years. Mercury pollution threatens to make this key part of
our diet too dangerous for children, pregnant women and women who
may become pregnant.
Despite the increased understanding of the dangers of mercury in our
food chain, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently
unveiled dangerously weak rules regulating mercury emissions from
power plants, the largest source of the toxin. In the absence of
strong federal safeguards, parents are forced to choose between a
healthy diet, containing fish, and the health of their newborns, who
could be harmed by mercury exposure caused by fish consumption.
Mercury, a neurotoxin, can destroy, damage or impair the
functioning of human nerve tissue. Mercury passes easily from a
mother to her child through the placenta and breast milk. Fetal
mercury exposure affects the developing brain, causing vision and
hearing difficulties, delays in the development of motor skills and
language acquisition, and, later, lowered IQ points, problems with
memory and attention deficits. These developmental problems may
translate into a wide range of learning difficulties once children
are in school, resulting in lifelong consequences.
Because Illinois is home to more than 20 large, older
coal-burning power plants, our state's power industry emits more
mercury than counterparts in all but four other states. Nationally,
more than 767,000 miles of U.S. rivers, 13.1 million acres of U.S.
lakes and 70 percent of the coastal waters off the contiguous 48
states were under advisory for mercury contamination in 2003,
including all bodies of water in Illinois.
In recognition of mercury's danger to public health, the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency
last year issued a special joint advisory urging all women of
childbearing age and young children to limit their consumption of
certain species of fish. With a growing number of studies linking
nutrition with the healthy development and growth of children,
however, the EPA cannot simply refer America's parents to local fish
To reduce the prevalence of mercury contamination as a factor in
learning disabilities, we must reduce mercury in fish, and the only
way to do that is to reduce the amount of mercury released into our
Unfortunately, in March the EPA announced new rules to regulate
mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants -- rules that fall
far short of what is needed to protect children's health. Recent
reports by EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory
Committee, the U.S. Government Accountability Office and EPA's
inspector general strongly criticized the plan, which allows power
companies to wait until after 2020 before having to install on their
plants technologies specifically designed to reduce mercury
emissions. Such technologies have been in use on municipal and
medical waste incinerators for nearly a decade and have been
successfully demonstrated in at least 16 full-scale tests at power
plants. Fourteen states, including Illinois, have sued or announced
their intent to sue EPA over the rules.
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As if this weren't bad enough, a recent Washington Post article
revealed that not only has the EPA been making decisions based on
questionable science, but the agency has also been stifling public
debate on how to best address mercury contamination, suppressing a
Harvard University study examining the potential public health
benefits of stronger mercury protections.
Congress should not let public policy be made based on bad
science, questionable economics and limited debate. A 2004 EPA study
found that as many as one in six American women already have unsafe
levels of mercury in their blood -- putting at risk an estimated 15
out of every 100 babies born in the United States each year.
Illinois Sens. Durbin and Obama have supported having a vote on
the floor of the U.S. Senate to disapprove the U.S. EPA actions that
will allow power plant operators to avoid mercury controls. We
commend them for their leadership on this issue.
But Illinois does not have to wait for the Washington, D.C.,
policy-makers to protect our health. Under the Clean Air Act, Gov.
Blagojevich has the authority to adopt stronger mercury rules for
Illinois, as three states have already done. We encourage the
governor to move ahead with mercury emission rules for Illinois
plants, using rules that reflect the best pollution control
technology available, which can capture 90 percent of mercury before
it gets into our environment and onto our dinner tables.
[Submitted by Ernie Florence, president of the Learning
Disabilities Association of Illinois, and Rebecca Stanfield,
director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group]
The Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois provides
support to people with learning disabilities, their parents,
teachers and other professionals. To learn more about the
association's work, visit
Illinois Public Interest Research Group is a statewide, nonprofit
consumer and environmental advocacy organization. To learn more
about the organization's work, visit
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