Enviros Exploit Mother's Day With Mercury Scare

As many wish their mothers a "Happy Mother's Day" this week, environmental activists have a different message — "one in six moms needs to be worried about toxic mercury."

That holiday message was part of the enviros' "Mother's Day Stroller Brigade to Stop Mercury Poisoning," (search) a rally held Thursday at Lafayette Park near the White House.

The rally was organized by the National Environmental Trust, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Clean Air Task Force. "Join other mothers and parents from across the country to urge the Bush administration to protect the health of women and young children by cleaning up toxic mercury pollution from power plants," they urged. "PLEASE bring your babies, toddlers, and children (in strollers) to this event to emphasize the importance of this issue to our kids' health," reads a rally flyer. 

But as you might expect, I have a few problems with the rally's rationale. 

First, and as I've discussed in prior columns ("Fishy Mercury Warning" and "Mercury Scare Rising"), there's no evidence that anyone is being harmed by the low levels of mercury in the environment.

Next, U.S. power plants (search) simply aren't a major source of mercury emissions (search). About 14.3 million pounds of mercury are released into the atmosphere annually, according to figures from the Electric Power Research Institute EPRI. Of that amount, about 9.5 million pounds are from natural sources (ocean outgassing (search) and terrestrial flux (search)) and about 4.8 million pounds are manmade emissions. Only about 6 percent of the manmade emissions come from the U.S. The bulk of manmade mercury emissions come from Asia (about 50 percent) and Europe (about 25 percent). Of the manmade emissions from the U.S., only about one-third is from electric utilities. Including natural sources, then, U.S. electric utilities are responsible for only about 0.6 percent of global mercury emissions. 

The enviros would like you to believe that power plant emissions are mercury-laden. The truth is that if a 1-foot diameter pipe extending 238,000 miles from the Earth to the moon were filled with the exhaust from a single power plant, the mercury in that pipe would equal a section only about 18 inches long. 

In most of the U.S., the bulk of mercury depositions aren't even from U.S. sources. Depending on geographic location, anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent of mercury depositions are of foreign origin, according to EPRI. At the very least, the enviros seem to be protesting in the wrong country. No demonstrable health risks, very low emissions, and significant depositions from non-U.S. sources make it seem as though not much is to be gained by forcing power plants to expend prodigious sums to cut mercury emissions — expenses which only result in higher electric bills to consumers.  

But just to humor those who still may be unconvinced, what would happen if mercury emissions were cut by, say 50 percent to 90 percent from current conditions? Not much according to researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory. Such drastic cuts would only reduce mercury deposition by about 8 percent to 15 percent.  

Based on data from the National Institutes of Health concerning U.S. consumption of fish, such a slight reduction in mercury deposition translates to an average change in mercury exposure among fish eaters of less than 0.3 percent. In areas with the greatest change in deposition, the reduction in mercury exposure from fish consumption could reach 3 percent. Big deal. 

The "Mother's Day Stroller Brigade" isn't really about mothers, or children, or mercury, or power plants. It's another election-year jab at President Bush by way of his proposal to reduce mercury emissions from utilities 70 percent by 2018. The president's proposal, according to the enviros, doesn't go far enough, fast enough. 

But is such a small change in mercury exposure with no resulting improvement in public health really worth the estimated $3 billion annual price tag for the controls necessary to reduce mercury emissions on power plants? Are you willing to pay higher electric bills for no benefit simply because the enviros don't like Bush? 

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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