Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Nothing Like a Cool Glass of Mercury! Easterbrook takes a look back at Clear Skies improvements delayed, looking at both the politics, the science, and the media. Politics:
In 2002, George W. Bush proposed the world's first regulation of power-plant mercury--small reductions right away and a roughly 70 percent reduction over 15 years, via the president's "Clear Skies" pollution-reduction legislation. Editorialists and environmental lobbyists denounced Clear Skies, calling its mercury provisions insufficient. Since 2002, enviros, editorialists, and Democrats in the Senate have been fighting doggedly against the Clear Skies bill, which was just blocked again in the Senate two weeks ago. Yet if mercury from power plants really is an urgent threat, blocking Clear Skies had the effect of insuring there would be no reform. Had Clear Skies been enacted in 2002, some of the mercury reduction that the bill mandated would already have occurred.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled regulations that would reduce power-plant mercury regardless of the fate of the Clear Skies proposal. The mandates are a 21 percent reduction by 2010 and a 70 percent cut by 2018. Immediately the rules were assailed as inadequate; Kerry was among many to declare opposition to Bush's plan, saying mercury emissions "must be controlled better and faster." Yet the same situation obtains now as in 2002: If environmental groups or members of Congress manage to block the new rule, then instead of a mercury reduction, nothing will happen. It's hard not to suspect that what some enviros and Democrats (not all, of course) want is to prevent action against mercury, to give them a grievance for the 2006 and 2008 elections.

A National Academy of Sciences study has shown that mercury could cause learning disabilities and seizures in young children. How often this actually happens is, however, not known. About six percent of American women have blood mercury levels high enough to cause risk to infants, a Centers for Disease Control study has found. News reports commonly say that large numbers of American women are "at risk" to give birth to babies with birth defects owing to mercury, but actual incidence of mercury-linked health harm has not been established. Because mercury tends to accumulate in Great Lakes fish, the Food and Drug Administration has warned women of childbearing age not to eat more than six ounces of freshwater fish per week. Most studies show overall incidence of birth defects in the United States declining, so there's no epidemic; especially, childhood deaths from birth defects are in decline. And the "hundreds of thousands" of birth defects caused by mercury that The New Republic warned about? Umm, sorry, mistake. This figure exceeds the total annual number of babies born with developmental defects in the United States, which according to the National Academy of Sciences is about 120,000, about three percent of whom have defects caused by prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals. That's about 3,600 babies per year with defects engendered by toxics, which is plenty bad enough. What fraction of the 3,600 links to mercury is unknown but is probably small, as lead and drugs (both legal and illegal) are believed to be the primary chemical-exposure cause. Though mercury levels in women's blood are the concern of the moment, lead levels in women's blood have declined significantly, and lead is much more clearly associated with birth defects than mercury.
No coverage of the mercury issue that I have seen has placed into context how small U.S. power-plant emissions are in the global scheme, or that current claims of a mercury-exposure crisis follow a dramatic reduction in U.S. mercury emissions. Reporters and editorialists seem determined to present mercury from U.S. power plants as a super-ultra danger, simply by leaving out the larger equation.
Ah, but that's environmental "issues" in a nutshell: lousy science, disingenuous politicians, and a slobberingly friendly media.

No comments: