08/25/2010 08:06 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

EPA to Start Reducing Mercury Emissions

On August 9th, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally took its first real steps to limit the amount of mercury that is spewed into the air in this country. But, it took quite a bit to get the EPA to set its new rules for mercury emission from cement plants.

The impetus included four lawsuits over the preceding 12 years from a coalition of environmental and public health groups, but it also took having the Obama administration in office. Without the new administration, it is certain that the new EPA rulings would not have been made. The EPA began its move to limit mercury emissions by focusing on the approximately 100 cement plants in the United States, whose mercury emissions account for about 7 percent of the total mercury air emissions. The two other greater sources of mercury emissions are large-scale boilers (15 percent of total emissions) and coal-fired power plants (51 percent of total mercury output) will hopefully be next in line for new rules. While I would prefer that the EPA limit the release of mercury from coal-fired plants, we should all be grateful that some reductions are being made.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that is found in all U.S. residents, and can cause a host of health problems. It is a potent neurotoxin causing mood swings, depression, anger outbursts and insomnia. It can also make thinking difficult and can cause tremors in sensitive individuals. It also reduces the ability of the white blood cells in the body to mount a defense against invading bacteria and viruses (ever notice how hard it is these days to actually get over the flu?) and has been associated with the development of autoimmune disorders. It also causes a great deal of "oxidative damage" in the body (the main mechanism by which aging occurs), and is a powerful poison to the power-producing organelles inside of every cell -- the mitochondria. When the mitochondria are unable to make the energy that the host cell needs, that host cell (whether it be a brain cell, eye cell, liver cell, etc.) cannot do its job. And when the mitochondria throughout the body are not functioning as they should, the entire body will feel fatigued! (Know anyone, other than a three-year-old, who does not complain of fatigue?).

We get the majority of our mercury burden from eating fish and other foods that have mercury in them. The Centers for Disease Control recently published the CDC 4th National Report and for the first time showed that the vast majority of mercury in the blood of U.S. residents was organic mercury (from fish). According to the EPA's National Fish and Wildlife Contamination Program (2008 National Listing of Fish Advisories), over 1.2 million miles of rivers and 16 million acres of lakes in the United States have mercury fish advisories, meaning that anyone catching fish in these bodies of water should not eat them. Also, over 42 percent of U.S. coastal waters, including the entire eastern seaboard, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, has mercury fish advisories. But, I bet you have NEVER seen any such advisory posted when you went to a Florida seafood restaurant or to a fish market. Have you?

Alarmingly, the number of mercury fish advisories in the U.S. has been skyrocketing year-by-year. The 1.2 million miles of river advisories in 2008 numbered less than 50,000 in 1993. The 16 million lake acres with too much mercury in 2008 started at only a hair over 2 million in 1993. Each year in between 1993 and 2008 the numbers jumped.

So, how did the fish in your favorite lake, stream or ocean get so loaded in mercury, and why is it increasing at such an alarming rate? Fish get the mercury from the water that passes through their gills, and from eating other fish. In the ocean, the biggest fish have the most mercury, because they eat all the smaller fish (and after one fish meal accumulate ALL the mercury that the other fish had taken its' lifetime to accumulate). But freshwater fish that are far smaller than swordfish or tuna can have as much, if not more, mercury than those big salt water fish do. The mercury in the water comes from the coal-fired power plants, institutional boilers and cement plants. The more mercury they put out every year, the more mercury in the water and fish, the more mercury in YOU and YOUR FAMILY.

It is about time that the EPA does its job and starts to reduce the toxic load that industry dumps on us every day. Hopefully, the winds in Washington D.C. will continue to blow in the direction of cleaner air through more stringent restrictions on industry.