Boston Globe
February 17, 2004


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

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.