Mercury Emissions and Exposure

by Brian McGraw on May 25, 2011

in Blog, Features

Post image for Mercury Emissions and Exposure

Mercury is making the rounds in the news, with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, a Lisa Jackson appearance on The Daily Show (and part two), and a bunch of angry blogs. From the angry blogger:

Famed science deniers Willie Soon and Paul Driessen, both of whom have worked for groups that accept cash from Exxon Mobil to pretend global warming isn’t happening, have a new crusade: Mercury denial!

That’s right: They have an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal claiming that breathing toxic mercury isn’t bad for you.

Willie Soon, astronomer. And Paul Driessen, lobbyist with a degree in geology. Expertise in public health? Limited. Willingness to take cash from the coal polluters that pump tons of mercury into our air every year? Extensive.

What’s that? You want to know what actual medical researchers have to say about the subject? Fine, have it your way:

Note that the post begins with a personal attacks on the individuals (as well as their funding), and ignores the number of valid arguments brought up in the piece. It also ignores the similarly esteemed medical researchers have noted that the U.S. accounts for less than 1% of global mercury emissions, so eliminating our mercury emissions (which comes at a cost, despite Lisa Jackson’s assertion that it will create jobs for those who install mercury scrubbers) won’t have a significant effect on atmospheric mercury content, and thus the alleged negative health effects. This paper estimates that man-made mercury emissions account for approximately 30% of total annual emissions, with 70% coming from natural sources. As the WSJ piece notes, this helps to put the ‘coal plants are killing your babies’ into perspective:

How do America’s coal-burning power plants fit into the picture? They emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year. But U.S. forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year; cremation of human remains discharges 26 tons; Chinese power plants eject 400 tons; and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out 9,000-10,000 additional tons per year.

All these emissions enter the global atmospheric system and become part of the U.S. air mass. Since our power plants account for less than 0.5% of all the mercury in the air we breathe, eliminating every milligram of it will do nothing about the other 99.5% in our atmosphere.

In the face of these minuscule risks, the EPA nevertheless demands that utility companies spend billions every year retrofitting coal-fired power plants that produce half of all U.S. electricity.

Furthermore, its the dose that makes the poison. Almost all of us have some traces of mercury in our blood (remember, 70% of this is exposure is from natural sources humans have no control over):

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which actively monitors mercury exposure, blood mercury counts for U.S. women and children decreased steadily from 1999-2008, placing today’s counts well below the already excessively safe level established by the EPA. A 17-year evaluation of mercury risk to babies and children by the Seychelles Children Development Study found “no measurable cognitive or behavioral effects” in children who eat several servings of ocean fish every week, much more than most Americans do.

The World Health Organization and U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry assessed these findings in setting mercury-risk standards that are two to three times less restrictive than the EPA’s.

It’s simply mind boggling that someone is willing to accuse another of dishonesty while creating so much of it on his own. Here is a longer post criticizing Lisa Jackson’s statements on The Daily Show. Here is a 2008 CEI study on mercury pollution and human exposure.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: