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The following is an article from this weekend's Chicago Tribune that says
that EPA has doubled the estimated risk of mercury to unborn children, and
estimates that as many as 1 in 7 children born in the US suffer from brain
damage and learning disabilities due to mercury.
In Wisconsin, a state study found that mercury emissions from products
exceeds mercury emissions from power plants. In 2001, an estimated 240 tons
of mercury were used for products in the US, compared to the 48 tons of
mercury emitted from coal-burning power plants.
John Reindl, Recycling Manager
Dane County, WI
Pregnant women get new mercury warning
1 in 7 newborns may be affected
By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published February 7, 2004
More than 15 percent of children born in the United States could be at
risk for brain damage and learning difficulties due to mercury exposure
in the womb, according to a new government analysis that identifies
certain types of fish as the culprits.
Several recent studies led the Environmental Protection Agency to
conclude that up to 630,000 of the 4 million babies born annually in the
U.S. could have mercury blood levels at or above the agency's safety
limit, almost double the EPA's previous estimate.
The more-alarming analysis comes amid a flurry of new concern about
mercury. New research, released Friday, found that mercury, a highly
toxic metal, can irreversibly damage parts of the brain before birth.
Also, the federal government is considering new regulations and
advisories about mercury.
Most of the mercury in newborns comes from fish eaten by their mothers.
The Food and Drug Administration is crafting new guidelines that advise
mothers and women of childbearing age to avoid or limit eating certain
types of fish with higher levels of the toxin, including tuna.
The EPA analysis also could influence a Bush administration proposal
that would allow the operators of coal-fired power plants, the biggest
man-made source of mercury, to buy their way out of limits on the
EPA scientists based their new estimate on adult blood samples collected
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on recent studies
that found the average level of mercury in umbilical-cord blood is 1.7
times higher than the level in the mother's blood.
Researchers previously assumed that mercury levels in maternal and
umbilical-cord blood were the same.
About 8 percent of women of childbearing age had mercury blood levels
exceeding the EPA's safety limit of 5.8 parts per billion. But a newborn
could exceed the limit if the level of mercury in the mother's blood was
just 3.5 parts per billion, according to a presentation by Kathryn
Mahaffey, a top scientist in the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides
and Toxic Substances.
In 2000, nearly 16 percent of American women had mercury blood levels of
3.5 parts per billion or higher, according to Mahaffey's Jan. 26
presentation at a scientific forum in San Diego. The EPA posted a
summary on its Web site this week.
Fish is big source
Relying on data provided by the CDC, Mahaffey reported that women who
had eaten fish at least nine times in a month had seven times as much
mercury in their blood as women who had not eaten fish during the
"This implies we need to do more to reduce the amount of mercury in the
environment and do a better job of advising women about the types of
fish they should be eating," said Alan Stern, chief of the Bureau for
Risk Analysis at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Stern recently published a summary of studies of mercury levels in
umbilical-cord blood, which Mahaffey used to develop the EPA's new
estimate of newborns at risk. Both scientists said the research is still
evolving and the estimates could change, but the conclusions are based
on a methodology recommended by the National Research Council, an arm of
the National Academy of Sciences.
Mercury is a naturally occurring substance that is released into the air
by volcanoes, forest fires, incinerators and factories and power plants
that burn coal. A small amount falls into lakes, streams and oceans
through rain and becomes methylmercury, a potent form of the toxin that
becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain.
It takes only a teaspoon of mercury to contaminate a 20-acre lake.
Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to methylmercury
because their nervous systems are still developing.
Irreversible brain damage
If certain types of fish are a large part of a mother's diet, mercury
passed to her baby in the womb can irreversibly damage parts of the
brain, according to a study published Friday in the Journal of
Pediatrics. High mercury exposures in the womb and in a child's early
years also can damage the nervous system's control of the heart, the
researchers found, reducing the amount of oxygen provided to the rest of
"The current focus on protecting women against this neurotoxin should be
expanded to cover children and adolescents as well," the study's chief
author, Phillipe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health, said
in a statement.
Nutrition experts recommend fish as a key source of protein and
heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But 44 states, including Illinois,
advise children and women of childbearing age to limit eating of certain
types of freshwater fish found to have high levels of mercury. The list
in Illinois includes bass, walleye, flathead catfish, sauger, saugeye,
muskellunge and northern pike.
In December, the FDA released a draft nationwide advisory for pregnant
women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age to limit their
intake of tuna due to mercury contamination. Eating more than 12 ounces
of canned albacore tuna a week--an amount equal to two cans of the
popular fish--is enough to exceed the EPA's safety limit.
Canned albacore, also known as white tuna, has nearly three times as
much mercury as canned light tuna, according to the FDA. The agency had
previously warned pregnant women against eating four other types of fish
that contain high levels of the toxin: shark, swordfish, king mackerel
Industry figures show women between 18 and 54 make about 85 percent of
the tuna purchases at supermarkets.
Mahaffey and others are urging mothers and women of childbearing age to
choose fish that have low levels of mercury. Mackerel, sockeye salmon
and herring generally have low levels of mercury but high levels of the
beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
Consumers have been bombarded lately with sometimes-conflicting advice
about seafood. In addition to the tuna advisory, a recent study showed
farm-raised salmon contain significantly higher concentrations of PCBs,
dioxins and other cancer-causing pollutants than salmon caught in the
Removing skin and fat can reduce exposure to PCBs in fish. But the
technique doesn't work for mercury, which is bound to the meat.
The National Fisheries Institute, an industry group that advises
consumers on its Web site to "eat fish to keep your mind sharp,"
questioned the EPA analysis. "We still believe the health benefits of
eating fish outweigh any risks," said Linda Candler, a spokeswoman.
Environmental and public health groups said the research should prompt
federal officials to take more aggressive steps to advise women and
children which fish are safe to eat.
"We need to deal with this problem now," said Jane Houlihan, vice
president of the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research and
advocacy organization. "Women need to know which fish they can eat that
will give them essential nutrients without the harmful mercury."
The largest sources of man-made mercury, coal-fired power plants,
release about 48 tons of the toxin into the air each year. Illinois
ranks seventh in the nation in mercury emissions.
Under a Bush administration proposal, utilities would have until 2018 to
reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent. Dirty plants could buy credits
from clean ones to avoid or delay installing mercury controls, similar
to a system already in place that has reduced emissions of sulfur
dioxide, the main ingredient in acid rain.
The EPA had been on track to enforce more-stringent regulations that
would have required a faster, deeper cut in mercury emissions. Utilities
argued they didn't have technology to meet the agency's target.
Environmental groups have called the administration's proposal an
election-year gift to some of Bush's top campaign contributors. Last
week, the EPA's advisory committee on children's health said the
proposal doesn't go far enough to attack the "significant health threat
of mercury to our children, and to healthy child development."
Among other things, the committee said it is concerned that allowing
utilities to buy or trade their way out of mercury controls could end up
creating "hot spots" of the toxin around the country.
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