Thursday, June 01, 2006

one big hot spot

I just got back from a public hearing on some proposed rules regarding mercury controls from coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. There were a lot of people there representing the two big power companies - Duke Energy and Progress Energy - that make record profits off sell power to NC consumers. There were also some representatives of environmental groups, and a few private citizens like me.

The power companies were urging the NC Environmental Management Commission to adopt the weakest rules possible under federal law regarding mercury reductions. The private citizens and the environmental groups were urging the EMC to adopt the strictest rules as soon as possible. Here are my comments to the commissioners. (The public comment period on the proposed rule is open through June 30 - if you live in North Carolina, please consider commenting to the EMC on this rule.)

Thank you for the opportunity to voice my concerns tonight.

I am 30 years old. At my age, many of my friends are pregnant, nursing, or contemplating pregnancy. I’m delighted that one of them is also here speaking to you tonight.

As you consider this rule, I hope you are thinking carefully about the impact that your decision will have on the growing brains of many, many babies who are in the womb right now, and many more who have yet to be conceived.

If those babies are lucky, and their parents carefully seek out fish consumption advisories, and follow them conservatively, they will be exposed to lower levels of methylmercury than those babies whose parents don’t know about the fish consumption advisories, or who don’t have a choice about following them because locally-caught fish is what they have to eat. I grew up at the coast, eating fish my family had caught for dinner on a regular basis – almost every night in the summertime. I’m sure that all that fish is now to thank for my healthy heart.

As you know, fish is very good food. Fish is both low in saturated fat and high in protein. It is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce blood pressure. The nutrients in fish also contribute heavily to healthy brain development in a growing fetus.

Unfortunately, eating fish is the leading source of exposure to methylmercury, which as you well know is a potent brain toxin. Women who eat fish more than twice a week have blood mercury levels that are seven times higher than women who eat no fish.

As you also know, the biggest source of this mercury in the environment are coal-burning power plants.

I learned a lot about mercury, and about how it affects the fetal brain, from a biologist named Sandra Steingraber, who specializes in fetal development, and who is also the mother of two young children. Here’s how she describes mercury’s effects on the fetus:
“When confronted with methylmercury, the placenta functions more like a magnifying glass than a barrier. Levels of mercury in the blood of a newborn typically exceed those of its mother by 70 percent.

“Once inside the fetal blood supply, mercury is carried to the fetal brain, where it interferes with brain cell migration.

“Methylmercury paralyzes migrating brain cells... Methylmercury also halts cell division in the fetal brain by binding directly to neural chromosomes. The cerebellum—center of balance and coordination—is a special target of methylmercury. Prenatal exposures to methylmercury have also been linked to deficits in memory, learning and attention span that persist into adolescence and appear irreversible.”
In order to protect that precious developing brain, a pregnant woman needs to carry around a list in her pocket all the time to know what kind of fish to avoid. And she needs to check that list every few weeks, because it is constantly being updated. As of today North Carolina’s fish consumption advisory list warns against 17 kinds of ocean fish, and 5 kinds of freshwater fish.

You have an opportunity to restrict the largest source of mercury in our food supply, from coal-burning power plants. Think about it this way: if you protect our food supply, you also protect our brain supply. We can’t afford to have stupid kids populating our schools and running our state in the future. Cutting back mercury in the environment now means safer food today, less brain damage today, and smarter people running this state in the future. I urge you to make the steepest reductions possible, as quickly as possible.

If you want to learn more and take action on the mercury rule, the NC Conservation Network has a great action page you can use.

Mercury isn't the only pollutant to worry about in fish. Farmed fish eat feed that is often highly contaminated with PCB's and other persistent bioaccumulative toxins. Check your state's fish consumption advisories, and eat only wild-caught fish.

And finally, check out Sandra Steingraber's wonderful book, Having Faith: an Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood.

tuna bad.

flounder good.


  1. Good for you! It is hard to stand up to the loud, powerful voice of big business/big money. Your point was very valid and clearly stated.

    Unfortunately, it seem more and more that big business and the government are bedfellows and the bottom line is profit not the health of our children. We have the same thing happening up here, but our press is not as controlled as yours seems to be.

  2. [FYI, jackie lives in canada]


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