Protecting babies from neurotoxins

It's well known that mercury causes damage to developing fetuses, with long-term effects on the child.

Story highlights

  • The new limits are projected to prevent 130,000 cases of asthma, 6,300 cases of bronchitis
  • Methylmercury, found in fish and shellfish, can harm a child's thinking, language
  • The new EPA rule also limits emissions of hazardous air pollutants like arsenic, benzene
The Environmental Protection Agency recently finalized a rule that for the first time requires U.S. coal and oil-fired power plant operators to limit emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants.
EPA rules in place under the 1990 Clean Air Act have targeted acid rain and smog-forming chemicals emitting from power plants. But perhaps surprising to many, those rules have never included limits on mercury, a neurotoxin known to damage developing fetuses and children.
How this policy affects your health
The benefits of this new rule, in terms of dollars saved and death prevented, far outweigh the costs to companies and consumers, according to peer-reviewed EPA studies.
U.S. power plants account for only about 1% of global mercury emissions. Even so, for each dollar spent reducing mercury and hazardous air pollutant emissions under the new rule, the EPA projects up to $9 in health benefit savings by preventing an estimated 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks each year.
Among children, the new limits are projected to prevent 130,000 cases of asthma and 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis each year, the EPA estimates.
"These standards rank among the three or four most significant environmental achievements in the EPA's history," said John Walke, Clean Air director of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "This rule making represents a generational achievement."
Despite federal limits on emissions of mercury from other sources, such as waste incinerators, there have been no limits on coal-fired power plants, which the EPA says constitute the single largest source of mercury emissions.
"As a mom, I'm especially excited to know that millions of mothers and babies will now be protected from mercury poisoning," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of Beyond Coal Campaign, a clean energy advocacy group.
"We all teach our kids the simple rule that if you make a mess you should clean it up - and now polluters will have to follow that same rule," she wrote in an e-mail conversation.
"Mothers around the country who have been worried about mercury pollution causing learning disabilities and other problems for their kids will be able to sleep easier tonight."
Health experts have known for a long time that mercury causes damage to developing fetuses, with long-term effects on the child.
Methylmercury, found in fish and shellfish, can harm a child's thinking, language, fine motor skills, memory, attention, and visual spatial skills when exposed in the womb.
One study estimates that for each part per million of mercury found in a mother's hair -- a common way of testing for mercury exposure -- her child loses approximately 0.18 IQ points.
Outbreaks of methylmercury poisoning have resulted in some children being born with severe disabilities, even when their mothers did not show signs of nervous system damage. But adults are at risk for mercury poisoning too; symptoms can include im