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We must stop allowing mercury pollution

By Ayelet Waldman, Special to CNN
updated 2:30 PM EDT, Wed October 26, 2011
Coal-fired power plants release much of the mercury and other toxic heavy metals that poison our water, air and food.
Coal-fired power plants release much of the mercury and other toxic heavy metals that poison our water, air and food.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ayelet Waldman: EPA was supposed to limit toxic pollutants like mercury 20 years ago
  • Waldman's daughter had high levels of mercury, a neurotoxin, in her blood
  • Waldman: Mercury contributes to birth defects, nerve disorders, learning disablilites
  • It's time to seriously limit mercury emissions that poison environment, she writes

Editor's note: Ayelet Waldman is a novelist and essayist who often writes about the changing expectations of motherhood. She wrote this op-ed in partnership with Sierra Club.

(CNN) -- This November, the Obama administration is expected to move forward with long overdue safeguards that would finally protect our families from mercury pollution. As the mother of four children, I can only say it's about time.

The EPA was first charged with limiting toxic air pollutants such as mercury during the Bush administration -- the first Bush administration. I don't know how many children have been exposed to dangerous levels of this neurotoxin during the subsequent 20-plus years of foot-dragging, but I do know that my eldest daughter was one of them.

When Sophie was 4 years old, we discovered that her mercury levels were elevated. We were already concerned because her learning had leveled off and in some notable ways even backslid. But it was only by chance that we realized she was being poisoned. Because we lived in an old house with lead paint, we had been following our pediatrician's advice to have our children tested regularly for lead and other heavy metals. Only because of this were we lucky enough to learn about our daughter's elevated mercury levels before it was too late.

How does a healthy, well-nourished child get mercury poisoning in her own home? By far the most common exposure to mercury comes from eating contaminated fish. Sophie adored tuna fish sandwiches and ate one or two a week. That was a small amount but enough to cause her harm. When, on a doctor's advice, we took fish out of her diet, her mercury levels declined.

Ayelet Waldman
Ayelet Waldman

We're thankful that our daughter suffered no permanent damage, but thousands of other parents are not so fortunate. Exposure to mercury in utero can contribute to birth defects, including neurological and developmental disorders, learning disabilities, delayed onset of walking and talking, and cerebral palsy. The EPA estimates that as many as one in 12 American women of child-bearing age have enough mercury in their bodies to put a baby at risk. That means that every year more than 300,000 babies could be born at risk of serious disabilities caused by mercury poisoning.

Mercury is one of the most potent of the many toxic heavy metals that come from the emissions of coal-fired power plants. If just one-seventieth of a teaspoon enters a lake every year, it is enough to raise mercury levels in the fish. And yet the EPA reported in 2005 that coal-fired power plants, the largest domestic source of unregulated mercury emissions in the United States, pumped 48 tons of this toxin into the atmosphere each year.

The technology to filter mercury and other toxic heavy metals from power-plant smokestacks is widely available and, in fact, some plants already have it in place. Under the EPA's proposed new protections, all plants would have to upgrade, and mercury emissions would be reduced by more than 90% (along with cancer-causing metals such as arsenic, chromium and nickel). It would prevent hundreds of thousands of illnesses and up to 17,000 premature deaths each year.

Why has it taken more than 20 years to do something? Because corporate polluters don't want to pay up to clean up, even though thousands of Americans pay dearly every year as a consequence. Worse, their economic arguments are baseless. By cleaning up the coal plants, the new EPA protections will actually result in a net gain for the U.S. economy. Heart disease, learning disabilities and premature deaths are expensive, too.

No parent should have to discover, as I did, that she is feeding her child poison in the sandwiches she packs in her lunchbox. After more than two decades, it's time to stop dumping poison into the atmosphere and pretending there are no consequences.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ayelet Waldman.

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