Surely their hearts are in the right place. A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "America's Children and the Environment," argues for a cleaner world. Specifically, it states that children of women with a blood mercury concentration of 5.8 parts per billion "are at some increased risk of adverse health effects." That's about 8 percent of American women of childbearing age. And that concentration is about 10 times less than the minimum recommended in the scientific literature. No one has documented epidemiological evidence for damage at such levels. But, oh well, what's wrong with a little caution when we're concerned about "the children"?
A lot. The EPA, and everyone else around Washington, knows how these stories play. They're used as the excuse to bang Congress into policy -- policies that can hurt and even kill.
Sure enough, a day after the report came out, the Washington Post filed a story that led with this: "[The report] said there is a 'growing concern' about exposure to mercury by women of child-bearing age." Two paragraphs later the policy banging began: "President Bush has proposed legislation.... [S]ome environmental groups consider [Bush's] pace too slow, while some industry groups consider it too ambitious." These proposals mandate major reductions in mercury from coal-fired power plants, the largest single source in the nation.
To encapsulate this common Washington morality play: "The EPA cares about children. Mercury is a poison. President Bush has proposed a phase-out that takes too long, which will kill kids. To stop this we need legislation, pronto."
As Gary Gilmore said once (and only once), "let's do it." Get rid of every single molecule of mercury from power plants. Will anyone find a major effect?
Human activity currently emits 4,000 mega (million) grams of mercury into the atmosphere. It can float around for a long time -- about as long as a flake of soot from a Chinese power plant -- and with the wind, under proper conditions, can go from Shanghai to Chicago in a week.
The United States, with about 25 percent of the world's total economic activity, should logically emit about 1000 of these megagrams. But we only throw out, according to the EPA, 144 megagrams, or 3.6 percent of the world's total. That's a pretty good bang for your mercury buck.
How much of this comes from the combustion of coal in U.S. power plants? Again, the EPA has a figure: 46.9 megagrams. (Readers who ask how they can be so precise: They can't). So all those power plants are producing about 1 percent of the total human contribution to the atmosphere. I have included an appropriate illustration depicting these relative amounts.
These babies show the relative human contributions of mercury worldwide (left), from the United States (middle) and from U.S. power plants (right).
All of this means that there are plenty of densely populated places on earth (e.g., China, Japan, Korea) that are exposed to one heck of a lot more mercury from power production and other economic activity. Where are the bodies? Where are the sick millions? We Americans pay our environmental lobby billions of dollars per year to find them. They aren't there.
In fact, except for a few, very famous outbreaks of mercury poisoning, such as the tragedy at Minamata Bay, Japan, caused by massive industrial dumping beginning in the 1930's, there's precious little sickness to be found on this fairly large planet.
And, in the case of power plants, we don't even know how much gets taken up by humans. That's because no one has ever bothered to see if the mercury in Americans largely resembles the mercury, in its chemical signature, that comes out of power plants. Nor has anyone ever asked if the patterns of mercury elevation in landlocked fish (the putative source for people) looks like the pattern of mercury fallout from the nation's matrix of power plants.
This is a classic example of regulating first and asking questions later. It's going to be pretty expensive to get a lot of the mercury out, which is likely to lead to a considerable reduction in the use of coal for energy production, resulting in substantially higher power costs. At the same time there's no demonstrable benefit, given that no one can now demonstrate a demonstrable harm in any truly scientific fashion.
When people really need power to save their lives, which they do when it gets hotter than blazes in the nation's urban cores, it may not be there or it may be prohibitively expensive. We already know, from the Chicago tragedy in July 1995, that power-related reductions in air-conditioning can kill hundreds -- and that's hundreds of people more than will ever die from the 1 percent of global mercury coming from U.S. power plants.