Commentaries posted do not necessarily represent the opinion of LDN.
 Any opinions expressed are those of the writers.

Congress and Gov. Blagojevich should act to eliminate mercury contamination

Send a link to a friend

Submitted by Ernie Florence, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois,
and Rebecca Stanfield, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group

[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 contamination advisories.

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 environment.

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.

[to top of second column in this article]

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

Click here to respond to the editor about this article.

< Recent commentaries

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching & Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law & Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health & Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor