Federal Activity – Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Mercury is a well-documented developmental neurotoxin and exists in several forms: elemental or metallic mercury, inorganic mercury compounds, and organic mercury compounds. Whatever the form, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin and exposure to mercury should be avoided as a health precaution.
Research indicates that high levels of mercury in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children impairs brain development. According to the EPA, 1 in 6 women of childbearing age already have levels of mercury in their bodies considered harmful to unborn children. Human activities account for two-thirds of environmental mercury exposure and it has been linked to autism, mental retardation, Attention Deficit Disorder, and other impairments affecting children’s behavior, cognition, mental and emotional health.
According to EPA, coal-fired electric power plants account for about 40% of total U.S. manmade mercury emissions. Other large sources are industrial boilers, burning hazardous waste, and the production of chlorine, cement and pulp/paper.
As a result of mercury’s persistence in the environment, it has contaminated the food supply and water. The EPA has issued advisories on the consumption of fish as it relates to mercury exposure and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) publishes a Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish that is regularly updated.
The EPA’s position on the use of thimerosal in lab reagents could be characterized as focused on the proper disposal of any waste as regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) under 40 CFR 261.24. However, not all reagent kit manufacturers provide a Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for their kits and the amount of mercury in those kits is not known, nor can the EPA certify the accuracy of information presented on MSDSs that are furnished by manufacturers or the amount of thimerosal in the kit. The University of Minnesota Technical Assistance Program provides more information about the use of mercury in health care lab reagents.
The EPA’s policy on thimerosal in vaccines is one of deferral to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) – visit the SafeMinds FDA page for more information on FDA policy on thimerosal.
Research has indicated that mercury adversely affects health outcomes in children. Autism is reported as affecting approximately one in 150 children born in 1994 in the United States. A recent report by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), noted that the role of the environment in autism research had received insufficient attention to date and remains an understudied area of investigation. Below are a few recent studies noting mercury’s harm to health.
- University of Texas Health Science Center – Proximity to Point Sources of Environmental Mercury Release as a Predictor of Autism Prevalence – Raymond F. Palmer et al; A significant increase in risk of autism diagnosis was identified in relation to proximity to coal plants and industrial mercury emitters. March 2008
- University of Northern Iowa – Blood Levels of Mercury Are Related to Diagnosis of Autism: A Reanalysis of an Important Data Set – DeSoto & Hitlan; A significant relationship does exist between the blood levels of mercury and diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. November 2007
- Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control, California Department of Health Services – Autism Spectrum Disorders in Relation to Distribution of Hazardous Air Pollutants in the San Francisco – Gayle Windham et al; Found an association between autism and mercury in ambient air at birth residence. September 2006
- Department of Physiology, University of Lausanne, Switzerland – Involvement of Environmental Mercury and Lead in the Etiology of Neurodegenerative Diseases – Tschudi-Monnet, et al; Environmental mercury was found to contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction, oxidative stress and brain inflammation, preconditioning the brain for the development of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. April 2006
- University of Texas Health Science Center – Environmental mercury release, special education rates, and autism disorder: an ecological study of Texas – Raymond F. Palmer et al; Environmentally released mercury increased autism rates. February 2005
SafeMinds supports environmental policies that implement existing technologies reducing needless exposure to mercury that will benefit children’s health now.
Long-term solutions are needed to protect the health of families and will require shifts in energy production to cleaner non-mercury-polluting technologies, like solar and wind power. As our nation undertakes redefining energy policy in response to global warming with a diverse green energy portfolio, an assessment of associated costs to health as a result of any energy technology in use, as well as policy on fiscal accountability for those costs to be remediated by industry, must be undertaken to determine the true costs of any technology in use and to protect young children and families from harm.
For information on legislation to reduce mercury exposure, visit SafeMinds’ legislation webpages.