Mercury In Our Food
In the Chesapeake watershed, mercury is responsible for more waters listed with fish consumption advisories than any other pollutant. Practical, cost-effective solutions can protect both public health and the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay.
Mercury in the Environment
Mercury is a highly toxic chemical, especially to the developing nervous system, and can cause IQ deficits in children. For this reason, fetuses, infants, children, and women of childbearing age are at greatest risk.
Mercury increases in concentration as it moves up the food chain as wildlife, fish, and people consume contaminated food. For example, the amount of mercury in fish tissue can be more than a million times higher than in surrounding water.
Though mercury is a naturally occurring element, two-thirds of the mercury moving through the environment is a product of human activities. In many cases, contaminated waters are in areas considered "pristine" with very little human activity or industry.
Where Is the Mercury Coming From?
One answer is: the air. According to EPA, coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury air emissions in the U.S., accounting for more than 40 percent of the pollution. Mercury is found in coal. And when coal is burned to make electricity, mercury flows out of the smokestacks of power plants and other coal-burning sources and is washed by rain into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.
The Good News
In December 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson unveiled the nation's first air pollution standards for mercury and other chemicals emitted from power plants. The regulations were mandated by Congress in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment, but faced roadblocks from litigation and lobbying.
The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule will require power plants to cut mercury emissions by at least 90 percent. CBF and others sued EPA to get these rules in place. This is good news for us, the fish we eat, and the air we breathe. EPA predicted as many as 11,000 fewer premature deaths per year, along with the potential for 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 new permanent jobs in the utility industry associated with the installation and maintenance of pollution controls.
Profits v. People
But the fight isn't over. The coal industry and its allies continue to try to derail these regulations, claiming that EPA cannot even decide whether to address major hazards to public health and the environment without first considering the effect on the industry's bottom line.
In 2013, the D.C. Circuit Court rejected this argument. The coal industry and its allies appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Earthjustice, on behalf of Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the NAACP*, intervened in the case on behalf of EPA. But the Supreme Court ruled against EPA and remanded the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court for review of the economic impacts of the rule. This, despite the fact that EPA did consider those costs after deciding that mercury and other hazardous pollutants emitted by power plants presented a significant health risk requiring regulation.
Since then, EPA completed its analysis, which immediately came under fire from industry groups. Again, CBF and other environmental groups intervened. However, oral arguments before the Court of Appeals has been put on hold while EPA reviews the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards after the Trump Administration issued an Executive Order in January 2018 to "review...and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those [regulations] that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources..." and essentially weaken restrictions on mercury emissions from coal-burning plants.
* Statements from these organizations are available on the Earthjustice website at http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2014/joint-statement-on-us-supreme-court-decision-to-hear-industry-challenge-to-the-mercury-and-air-toxics-standards. More about the case can be found at http://earthjustice.org/features/profits-before-people.
Although nearly all fish and shellfish contain trace amounts of mercury, they also contain high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. So, make fish part of your healthy diet, but be conscious of your risk factors, avoid fish with higher mercury levels (like swordfish and shark), and check local advisories on fish you catch in local waters.