Dealing With The Dangers of Mercury
By Jared Eudell
It is well documented that mercury can be dangerous stuff. In fact, the harm that it can do to humans is so great that it is no longer used in medical thermometers and many other consumer products and people are advised against eating too much tuna fish or swordfish because of the high mercury levels. High levels have been linked to autism and attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children and can lead to neurological disorders, cancer, liver or kidney disease or a number of fatal heart diseases in adults. Other symptoms may include impaired speech, deafness, blindness, dyslexia and uncontrollable aggression. Scientists estimate that as many as 60,000 children are born annually with mercury-induced impairments.
Although mercury also occurs naturally, the leading human-generated source in the nation is emissions from coal-fired power plants that puff about 48 tons of it into the air each year. To understand how much damage 48 tons can do, consider that the contents of one mercury thermometer can contaminate a 20 acre lake. Nationally, more than 12 million acres (30 percent) of our lakes and 453 thousand miles of our rivers have state-issued fish consumption advisories.
All of New Jersey’s lakes have mercury advisories. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection publishes state-wide mercury advisories each year which currently lists largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, chain pickerel, yellow bullhead, brown bullhead and sunfish. There are even more stringent advisories for the Oradell Reservoir and the upper Passaic River including black crappie. (Visit www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/njmainfish.htm for other advisories.) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have collaborated on national mercury consumption advisories.
On Nov. 4, 2004, Governor McGreevey announced that the State has adopted the most stringent regulations in the nation. The new rules will reduce the mercury emissions from New Jersey’s coal-fired power plants 90% by 2007, iron and steel melters (NJ’s largest source) 75% by 2009, solid waste incinerators 95% below 1990 levels by 2011, and medical waste incinerators to one-tenth of the current federal level.
Yet the federal government still quarrels about how and when to regulate mercury emissions. The Clean Air Act currently requires national mercury emissions to be reduced by 90% by 2008. Such a reduction is feasible using existing technology. However, the EPA seeks to weaken the Clean Air Act by creating a longer timeline for reduction (to 2018), lowering reduction targets (3 times higher than those of the Clean Air Act), and by establishing mercury pollution credits that can be bought, sold or traded among dischargers, a mechanism that is illegal when hazardous chemicals are involved.
Research Explores Connection Between Coal-Fired Power Plants and Mercury-Laden Fish
Regardless of how the federal government chooses to act, and despite best efforts of New Jersey, mercury is already in our waters, in our fish and in our diet. The Waterkeeper Alliance is currently funding a research project with the University of South Carolina’s Asheville Environmental Quality Institute that will study the connection between mercury-laden fish and their proximity to coal-fired power plants.
Hackensack Riverkeeper has agreed to support the study by catching fish above and below the Oradell Dam and recording the distance and direction to the nearest coal-fired power plant. Using our samples and samples from about 60 other sites in the United States and Canada, the UNC scientists can use computer models to associate the mercury levels with power plant emissions.
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