Mercury Threat to Kids Rising, Unreleased EPA Report Warns
February 20, 2003
By JOHN J. FIALKA
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- A report warning that emissions of mercury by coal-fired
power plants and other industrial sources poses an increasing health danger
to young children has been delayed for nine months, while the Bush
administration struggles with how to handle an increasingly contentious
The Environmental Protection Agency report is to be released soon,
officials said, after being subjected to an unusual level of scrutiny by a
half-dozen other federal agencies -- including the White House's Office of
Science and Technology Policy. But it isn't likely to settle the mercury
question. Among pollutants the report studied, mercury is the only one for
which levels aren't dropping.
A partial draft, titled "America's Children and the Environment," notes
that states increasingly are issuing warnings about dangerous mercury levels
in fish. It says there is mounting evidence that mercury is collecting in
the blood of women of child-bearing age.
The evidence is also increasing, warns the EPA report, that high doses of
mercury can cause mental retardation and other neurological disorders in
infants. The report updates a 2000 version by the Clinton Administration
that included no findings on mercury.
Reducing mercury emissions has become a battle both in the Bush
administration and in Congress. President Bush has proposed legislation
called the Clear Skies Act that, among other things, would require industry
to cut mercury emissions in two steps: by 50% by 2010, and by 70% by 2018.
But the coal-mining industry and some coal-fired electric utilities are
working to weaken the reductions. Environmental groups, meanwhile, want
"For this administration, mercury has become a very sensitive issue," says
Michael Magner, an analyst for the Public Education Center, a nonprofit,
pro-environment research group, who provided the draft copy of the report,
dated in October. People familiar with the final report, originally due last
May, confirmed it finds that mercury poses a serious health problem for
The report notes that children are more exposed and vulnerable to mercury
and other environmental pollutants because they play outside, and for their
size they drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air than adults
Just when the final report will be released remains unclear. EPA spokesman
Joe Martyak says the document is "at the printer" and "was well worth the
effort." Sen. Barbara Boxer, who asked the EPA for the report in October,
was skeptical of that time frame. "They have been sitting on this thing for
months," says the California Democrat. "We're wasting precious days during
which we could be strategizing on how to improve the health of our
Environmental-health experts both within EPA and in the larger health
community are pressing for steeper cuts than in the Clear Skies proposal,
arguing that unlike other pollutants, mercury is a persistent poison that
tends to accumulate in the food chain, particularly in fish.
"Putting as much mercury in the biosphere as we do is something we're going
to regret, I think, for a long, long time," says Amy D. Kyle, an
environmental-health scientist at the University of California at Berkeley,
and one of five authors of the EPA study. The authors reviewed the 2000 EPA
report on children's environmental exposures, she said, and felt that
mercury should be added "as a key issue."
The draft report notes that children born to women with blood
concentrations of mercury above 5.8 parts per billion have a "higher risk of
adverse health effects." About 8% of women of child-bearing age tested had
"at least" that level of mercury in their blood during the years 1999 and
2000, it states. Other medical evidence has shown the risk is highest to
fetuses and infants, while it isn't clear what hazards adults face from
Utilities and the coal-mining industry, who are key supporters of President
Bush's energy plan, insist that trying to curb mercury emissions from coal
will be economically and technologically difficult. "Right now there are no
commercially available technologies for the control of mercury emissions,"
says Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.
Her industry wants to postpone the proposed 70% cut, and she says
technology already available to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen
oxides may have the "co-benefit" of meeting the 50% interim cut in mercury
emissions by 2010. "We don't want to attempt further cuts until we see how
the technology develops," she says.
The utility industry, on the other hand, regards the 50% cut as
"unrealistic," says Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric
Institute, the electric utilities' main trade association. The institute
supports the 70% reduction by 2018, however.
Environmental groups expect a separate set of regulations being prepared by
the EPA, under a provision of the Clean Air Act, to be stronger. The act,
adopted in 1970, allows the EPA to regulate mercury when it views it as a
health hazard, which it now does. Those regulations are scheduled to be
announced in December, unless Congress adopts the Clear Skies Act, which
would supersede them.
Clean Air regulations probably wouldn't allow companies to use emissions
trading to soften the financial cost of the new regulations, as Clear Skies
Under emissions trading, companies that reduce emissions below federal
limits get credits, which they can then sell to companies that haven't. Such
trading allows plant managers to phase out older equipment and finance the
installation of new emissions-control equipment that can cost hundreds of
millions of dollars for power plants.
Write to John J. Fialka at firstname.lastname@example.org
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