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Baby care, courtesy of the EPA

April 25, 2011 | By Carol Capó

I never let my daughter have a tuna fish sandwich

It's not that I'm a food purist. She had her share of peanut butter sandwiches larded with fat and ham laced with nitrate. But I drew the line at tuna fish.

That's because I was thinking ahead, to the possibility that one day there might be grandbabies. And when you think about babies, you don't want to have to think about neurological damage.

That's why I'm glad the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing rules that would slash the amount of mercury — and it is way too much — that comes out of coal-fired power plants. Because mercury exposure can mess with developing nervous systems in ways that interfere with thinking, learning and memory.

We've already tackled many of the major sources of mercury. The biggest single source that remains is the power plants that burn coal and spew the by-products, including mercury, into the air. It ends up deposited in rivers, streams and lakes and on the land, where it can run off into water.

Once mercury gets into the water, little fish take it in, and bigger fish take them in, and so on up the food chain until the fish near the top accumulate problematic amounts in their tissues.

When people eat them, the mercury accumulates in their bodies. High levels in the bodies of women can interfere with the neurological development of their babies, and in children can cause impairment. Hence no tuna in the lunchbox.

Not all tuna is equally problematic. It depends on how much you eat, of course. And albacore is apparently not as likely to have mercury as the cheaper chunk light tuna. But I figure, why take chances?

The same goes for swordfish, king mackerel and other predatory species where mercury accumulates.

The EPA tried several years ago to make power plants clean mercury out of their emissions, but the effort petered out in courts and Bush-era policy. Currently, there's no limit on how much of this substance they spit out on us. Now, the EPA's trying again, with a rule that targets not only mercury but also emissions of other heavy metals, including arsenic, which cause cancer, and toxic gases, which cause heart and lung problems.

The industry, of course, will balk, and so will big electricity consumers. Installing equipment and changing processes to cut toxic emissions will cost $11 billion a year in 2016, the EPA estimates.

That's a lot of money. But it's no more than Americans spend on bottled water. I'd rather spend it on clean water.

Break it down to what it will cost a typical household in a typical month, and it's not so much: $3 or $4, the EPA says. A lot of households spend that in a month on fast food meals for their kids — they'd be better off spending it on a healthier environment. It'll cost many families less than their latté habit. They'd be better off with cleaner air.

The EPA hasn't put a number on the savings from regulating mercury. But it did look at the benefits of its combined rule, cutting mercury and other toxic metals and gases, and figures it will prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths a year. Surely that's worth doing.

We could think of this is a health care initiative. The EPA figures that it will mean 11,000 fewer heart attacks a year, 12,000 fewer hospital and emergency room visits, 15,000 fewer cases of bronchitis and 120,000 fewer asthma attacks. That's a lot of pain and money — many times $11 billion — spared.

We can think of this as a jobs program. Yes, there will be economic consequences from driving up the price of electricity. But there will also be consequences from creating a lot of business for firms and workers that make and install scrubbing equipment

This isn't a new problem, of course. It's been around as long as burning coal has, but we didn't realize how bad and how widespread it was until we started looking for mercury — and finding it.

Virginia has been testing fish in its waters for mercury, and finding it at low levels in lots of places. But in some rivers and lakes, it's finding fish containing more mercury than the Health Department or the Department of Environmental Quality considers safe. That was true in largemouth bass in Lake Trashmore and in striped bass and other fish (including the wonderfully named golden redhorse sucker) in the Mattaponi River.

I'm not a fan of unnecessary government intervention. But this, I think, is the kind of issue where government involvement is necessary. Individuals can't protect themselves — you can skip the tuna salad, but you can't avoid the toxic stuff that power plants put into our air. And you can't rely on industry voluntarily cleaning up. It's not in the economic best interests of corporations to drive up their costs — and cutting pollution does — so they do it only when they're forced to.

They should be forced to. We have grandbabies to think about.

Source: Daily Press
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