Mercury Taints Rivers, Lakes in US

Medical Authors and Editors Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.

August 25, 2004 -- The EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) has released its annual summary of information on fish advisories and safe-eating guidelines. This information is provided to EPA annually by states, territories and tribes.

The EPA Perspective

"Emissions are down, and emissions will continue to go down as the Bush Administration takes the first-ever steps to regulate mercury from coal-fired power plants," said EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt.

"Human-caused mercury emissions in this country have dropped 50 percent since 1990, and the Bush Administration is in the process of regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants for the first time in our nation's history. The final rule, which will be promulgated by March 15, 2005, will be one component of the Agency's overall effort to reduce mercury emissions domestically and internationally."

These statements are contained in an EPA news release yesterday.

The Story from Another Perspective

"The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday that fish in virtually all of the nation's lakes and rivers were contaminated with mercury, a highly toxic metal that poses health risks for pregnant women and young children," commented The New York Times today on page 19.

"Michael O. Leavitt, the EPA administrator,'" continued The New York Times, "drew his conclusion from the agency's latest annual survey of fish advisories, which showed that 48 states -- all but Wyoming and Alaska -- issued warnings about mercury last year. That compared with 44 states in 1993, when the surveys were first conducted."

The Story from Yet Another Perspective

"One third of the nation's lake waters and one-quarter of its riverways are contaminated with mercury and other pollutants that could cause health problems for children and pregnant women who eat too much fish, the Environmental Protection Agency said," wrote USA Today in a lead article on the front page today.

"States issued warnings for mercury and other pollutants in 2003 for nearly 850,000 miles of U.S. rivers - a 65% increase over 2002 - and 14 million acres of lakes. The warning level is the highest ever reported by the EPA," continued USA Today. "Mercury is emitted primarily by incinerators and power plants that burn coal."

The Evolution of the Current Situation

We are struck by the discrepancy between these various views of the mercury situation. To clarify the situation, we looked back in time. We found interesting information dated December 3, 2003 and March 16, 2004.

On December 3, The Washington Post reported that: "The Bush administration is working to undo regulations that would force power plants to sharply reduce mercury emissions and other toxic pollutants, according to a government document and interviews with officials."

On March 16, the LA Times reported that: "Political appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency bypassed agency professional staff and a federal advisory panel last year to craft a rule on mercury emissions preferred by the industry and the White House, several longtime EPA officials say."

"The EPA staffers say they were told not to undertake the normal scientific and economic studies called for under a standing executive order. At the same time, the proposal to regulate mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants was written using key language provided by utility lobbyists," added the LA Times.

From a Health Perspective

From a health perspective, we believe that the EPA is not functioning effectively these days to protect the health of the nation from mercury. The EPA is no longer relying on science but on politics. We are not alone in this thought.

Technical experts at the EPA were ignored while the Bush administration "chose a process that would support the conclusion they wanted to reach," said John A. Paul, a Republican environmental regulator from Ohio who co-chaired the EPA-appointed advisory panel.

Russell E. Train, a Republican who headed the EPA during the Nixon and Ford administrations, said: "I think it is outrageous. The agency has strayed from its mission in the past three years."

"There is a politicization of the work of the agency that I have not seen before," said Bruce C. Buckheit, who retired in December as director of the EPA Air Enforcement Division after many years in major federal environmental posts. "A political agenda is driving the agency's output, rather than analysis and science," he added.


We believe that the EPA is doing a better job spinning their version of the mercury story than protecting the health of the nation. It is time that the EPA returns to a reliance on science rather than politics and returns to protecting the health of our environment and our people.

This mercury situation is a scandal. There will be no fish left to eat (safely).

Related Links

  • Mercury poisoning (medical dictionary entry)
  • Mercury in Tuna Warning & Polluting (Health Fact)


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