Boston Globe February 17, 2004 EDITORIAL: MERCURY RISING A NEW, more accurate measure of mercury levels in newborns has doubled the Environmental Protection Agency's estimate of how many might have dangerous amounts of the toxin in their bodies. The new data strengthen the case for requiring coal-burning power plants and manufacturers to reduce sharply the amount of mercury in their emissions. Under the old measurement, one in 12 US women of childbearing age had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. But researchers recently discovered that mercury levels in a fetus's umbilical cord are 70 percent higher than in its mother's blood, not the same, as had previously been believed. This means that one out of six women bearing children has a level of mercury that could cause learning disabilities, sluggishness, and other neurological problems in her offspring. Mercury was not a widespread environmental toxin until the Industrial Age. Coal combustion is by far the greatest source of the heavy metal. Mercury in the environment gets into the food chain, especially certain kinds of fish, compromising the health value of that protein source. The Clinton administration acted to cut back mercury emissions aggressively by including it with other toxins such as lead or asbestos that are to be reduced through "maximum achievable technology." Under its "Clear Skies" initiative, the Bush administration proposes a less rigorous approach to mercury cleanup, one that by 2010 would permit 522 percent more mercury emissions than full enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Under the administration's proposal, companies could also escape cleanup requirements by buying pollution credits from a utility hundreds of miles away. For a pollutant like the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, such credit trading makes sense because the adverse effect of the substance is global, not local. But that is not the case with mercury. A Florida study has shown that allowing a plant to continue to spew mercury from its smokestack causes a concentration of the toxin in the immediate neighborhood. An otherwise strong mercury cleanup plan by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is also flawed by its proposal to let polluters escape some requirements by arranging for an off-site alternative reduction plan. The utility could get credit, for instance, by arranging for the proper disposal of mercury at school laboratories. This, too, would still leave power plant neighbors in a mercury hot spot. Operators of municipal waste incinerators and some coal-fired power plants have shown that new technology can greatly cut back on mercury emissions. Such technology should become standard at the nation's utilities, but it won't be unless the Bush administration adheres to the Clinton standard that mercury has to be fought to the limits of "maximum achievable technology." Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.