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Risky regulations

Science | Will the EPA's new mercury rules do more harm than good?

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

Imagine you've decided to take your favorite 11-year-old boy fishing out on a Michigan lake. On his first cast, he hooks a largemouth bass, a 4-pounder you have to help him reel in. It'll go perfect on the grill. One problem: Michigan has a statewide mercury advisory for bass. Mercury is a toxicant that affects the nervous system. Do you eat the fish?

Michigan suggests you make no more than one meal a week from any bass you've caught. For an 11-year-old, only one meal a month is recommended. If you follow that cautious advice, you can grill today, but you'll be eating hot dogs tomorrow.

Whether you throw the fish back-or eat it for lunch and dinner-you're making a risk decision. As a society we leave some risks to individual choice or the marketplace, and minimize others through regulation. On Dec. 16 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the first nationwide limits on the emission of mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. As the debate surrounding the rules proves, Americans disagree about how much risk to regulate.

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The new EPA rules are expected to eliminate 91 percent of mercury from the exhaust of coal- and oil-fired power plants in the United States, and reduce the emission of nickel, chromium, arsenic, and certain acid gases. Mercury that enters the atmosphere can travel for thousands of miles before falling to the ground or into bodies of water, where it accumulates in fish. Humans who eat those fish absorb the mercury, and some studies have shown cognitive impairments in children whose mothers ate seafood-rich diets during their pregnancies. Advocates of regulation say reducing mercury from power plants will reduce a health risk to children.

The power sector will have to spend $11 billion a year by 2016 to comply with the rules, according to EPA calculations. Electric companies have decided to shut down some of their coal-fired plants and install powerful scrubbing technology on others. Consumer electricity prices could rise 12 percent, and perhaps more in some regions.

Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), says increased energy costs are a sound investment where children's health is concerned: "Is it right, in our country, that people should have to worry about where they can take their kids fishing?" Hescox's organization has helped draft a statement describing mercury pollution's effect on the unborn and calling for stricter regulation of emissions. The statement (mercuryandtheunborn.org) has gained endorsements from more than 100 pastors and leaders, including Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. The statement reads in part, "One out of six babies born in the U.S. has harmful levels of mercury in their blood."

"I think that's a national tragedy," says Hescox. "Jesus said, don't do anything to hinder the children."

But another organization with endorsements from evangelicals, the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, thinks some skepticism of the EPA is justified in this case. Cornwall's spokesman, Cal Beisner, said the EEN's "one out of six babies" figure is inflated, based on calculations that assume mercury could be harming children even in relatively minute amounts, an uncertainty that needs an empirical answer. (WORLD founder Joel Belz is a Cornwall advisory board member.)

Hescox said he stands by his organization's figure. Who's right? And how do two groups promoting environmental stewardship come to opposite conclusions on an environmental matter?

Much depends on the research they rely upon. The studies the EEN cites assume that mercury in umbilical cord blood is 70 percent more concentrated than in the mother's bloodstream. But cord blood mercury concentrations vary in other studies, and the EPA's estimate-which includes an uncertainty factor to account for cord blood-is that 300,000 newborns each year may be at risk. That's bad news, but at 1 in 14 births, it's half the EEN's figure. Beisner thinks even the EPA's number is too high: He believes 1 in 1,000 births is more realistic, and that any neurological harm is likely to be barely detectable.

Other organizations are weighing in. The Hawaii Seafood Council, a nonprofit promoting Hawaiian seafood, argues the fish consumption advice issued by the U.S. government in 2004 (that pregnant women and young children should eat fish no more than twice a week) is out of date and dangerously underemphasizes the health benefits of seafood. And new research shows that the element selenium, found in many fish, neutralizes mercury's effect on the brain: An EPA-funded study in 2009 found that 98 percent of the freshwater fish it surveyed in the western United States had sufficient levels of selenium to counteract mercury toxicity altogether.

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