Politics & Policy

Let’s Clear The Air

The sky is not falling.

Government regulation is sometimes like the old shell game, in which trying to guess where the pea is can be devilishly difficult. An example is the nation’s first set of regulations to control mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, announced last week by the EPA. The culmination of years of squabbling over different approaches, the rule imposes nationwide caps that will reduce emissions 70 percent by 2018, while conferring on individual power plants the flexibility to adopt new technology as it becomes available and to determine the best method for their facility to meet the new limits.

Environmental groups had favored a plan that would more immediately institute limits on each power plant, despite the fact that the necessary technologies are still experimental and cannot reliably and consistently reduce mercury emissions for the 1,032 different plants across the country. Environmentalists’ main objection to the “cap-and-trade” plan announced by EPA–which allows facilities to trade and sell their emissions allowances while technology is being implemented–ostensibly is concern that it could create ecological “hot spots” of mercury in parts of the country. But that won’t happen, according to an analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit energy and environmental research firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., because most mercury comes from sources other than power plants, which contribute little to the areas of highest deposition in the United States. In fact, the EPA’s plan produced greater overall reductions than the environmentalists’ plan.

No matter. Environmentalists and some members of Congress are alleging that the EPA’s new regulations don’t go far enough and will put thousands of unborn babies and children at risk of neurological damage because of higher methylmercury levels in fish. Their rationale is that the release of mercury from coal-burning power plants contaminates our seafood.

Here’s where the shell game comes in. Emissions from U.S. incinerators and other sources have been declining for decades, and the nation’s power plants now contribute less than one percent of the global atmospheric mercury. In fact, the U.S. discontinued mercury mining altogether in 1991, and domestic use of mercury fell by more than 75 percent just between 1988 and 1996. Our air is cleaner than ever.

Moreover, there is no proof that the amount of methylmercury in fish Americans eat is dangerous. Despite advisories from the government for pregnant women and children to limit consumption of fish to prevent damage to children’s developing nervous systems, the only cases in the scientific literature of mercury poisoning and subsequent neurological problems from fish were due to an industrial mercury spill in Japan in the 1950s. They resulted in methylmercury levels in fish 40 to 1,000 times higher than those consumed by Americans.

Methylmercury has always been found naturally in fish and in our bodies, but the trace levels of human exposure haven’t increased in centuries; in fact, they’re dropping. And research that has followed thousands of pregnant women and their children for nearly 15 years has found no evidence that the amounts of methylmercury in our fish put children or newborn babies at risk. Even among populations eating ten or more times the amounts of fish consumed by Americans, scientists have found no credible evidence of neurotoxicity, let alone brain damage, developmental delays, retardation, or learning disabilities.

The sky-is-falling crowd of activists and government officials remains unconvinced. They persist in warning women that there is real risk in exceeding EPA-established thresholds of methylmercury exposure that were set arbitrarily and with overly conservative safety margins. To determine acceptable levels of methylmercury, the EPA began with an amount at which there was no observed effect at all in the most sensitive of the population with a lifetime of exposure–a level nearly ten times that found in American women–and then added another tenfold safety cushion to that.

The EPA’s safety margins are the most restrictive in the world and conflict with those adopted by other U.S. agencies, as well as other agencies around the world. Even so, tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no American women or child had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood or hair.

These facts haven’t stopped the pursuit of hugely expensive regulations to limit mercury emissions, which, according to estimates, will actually reduce average methylmercury levels in our fish by no more than 1.7 parts per billion. A careful analysis published this month by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center found that “complete elimination of U.S. power-plant [mercury] emissions would result in a decrease in mean maternal-blood mercury levels of 0.13 parts per billion.”

To justify these infinitesimal reductions, activists and regulators have built a house of cards–for which taxpayers will pay billions of dollars. The resulting higher utility rates and attendant human costs will fall disproportionately on the elderly, poor, minorities and children.

EPA has a history of failing to make decisions based on science and on weighing costs and benefits. As Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer describes in Breaking the Vicious Circle, similarly expensive, non-cost-effective regulations were imposed when the EPA banned asbestos pipe, shingles, coating, and paper, which the most optimistic estimates suggested would prevent seven or eight premature deaths over 13 years–at a cost of approximately a quarter of a billion dollars. Breyer observes that the EPA’s action is damaging in two ways: by diverting valuable resources from other, more effective public healthcare measures; and by removing asbestos from existing structures in ways that make fibers airborne and pose even greater risks to human health.

It has been said that we get the government we deserve. Therefore, we must demand that regulatory decisions are based on sound science and common sense, not on politics and unfounded fears. Only then will public policy serve the public interest.

Sandy Szwarc is a registered nurse, award-winning food editor and writer, and author of the forthcoming The Truth We Never Hear about fat and dieting. Henry I. Miller is a physician, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, picked by Barron’s as one of the Best 25 Books of 2004.


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