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Eating Nemo
By Denise Magditch

It appears that the human race is being poisoned. A person ingests a toxic substance known as methylmercury every time he or she breathes, when one has a cold glass of water, or when a tuna fish sandwich is consumed. What is worse is that this is happening at an alarming rate, and our Administration is taking baby steps to clean up the situation. It seems as though the welfare of human beings has been replaced with other priorities.

Methylmercury is an organic compound found everywhere in our environment. By itself, it is fairly harmless. It becomes dangerous when it is deposited on the floor of water bodies, such as lakes or the ocean, and is ingested by microorganisms. The compound then makes its way through the food chain until it gets to your plate.1 Methylmercury is emitted into the environment mainly by coal-burning power plants. Once in the air, it infects the rain that falls onto our water and land. From there, the compound is deposited into the ecosystem where the food chain takes over.2 If a person were to eat fish or poultry containing this compound, the effects could be irreversible. Exposure to methylmercury could cause damage to the nervous system and brain, affecting a person's attention, memory, and ability to speak. The risks of this are severely high in children and pregnant mothers, but still remain a threat to all of the human population. In the animal kingdoms, methylmercury contamination puts reproduction, and the continuing of the various ecosystems, in peril.3

As early as the 1950s and 1960s in Minamata, Japan, there were many cases of severe mercury poisoning. It was found that a chemicals factory was discharging mercury-containing wastes into the local waters, contaminating fish that residents caught for food.1 It is happening globally today, and the United States, especially the Bush Administration, seems to be dragging its feet to clean it up. In 2001, under the Environmental Protection Agency's Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA had estimated that with the new technologies they had at their disposal, they could reduce the amount of mercury emitted by the coal-burning plants by 90 percent.4 By early 2004, under new EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt, the EPA had rescinded this, setting reduction targets so low that the industries are still polluting without the new mercury controls.5 Why the drastic change in just two years? It appears that the change in management has also changed the way the EPA is run. Apparently, it allowed a law firm, Latham & Watkins, to assist it in the law-making process. Latham & Watkins, "was among the law firms and utility industry groups that lobbied the administration last year during deliberations over mercury laws in the Clean Air Act."6 It seems that some of the current leaders, namely Jeffrey Holmstead the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, and William Wehrum the Chief Counselor for Holmstead, of the EPA held positions at Latham & Watkins before joining the agency. The big businesses are sacrificing our safety to make money.

In addition to this, the Bush Administration sent delegates to the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) meeting in February of 2003 with guidelines to block any further attempts to clean up the mercury. The delegates were informed that they should "resist calls for international limits on mercury releases or other mandatory measures aimed at reducing the risk of mercury exposure."3 The reasons the delegates were given is that any efforts would be too costly and take too much time. They did successfully block any further action, and all the international delegates are to simply meet on the topic again in 2005.

The pollution of our planet and the inhabitants, along with the apparent unwillingness to change it, must be stopped. "Action is necessary." States Klaus Topfer, the executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme. "We have to reduce drastically and as soon as possible (because of) the risk it poses to a lot of people."3 Already, there is much opposition to the flaws of the EPA and the refusal of Bush to do anything about it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration have put strict regulations on the consumption of fish, allowing no more than six ounces per week. MoveOn.org, in a partnership with the Environmental Working Group, has launched an ad campaign alerting the public of the dangers of eating such fish. They have also "generated more than 180,000 comments to the EPA to try to stop President Bush from choosing large corporate campaign contributors over mothers and children, who are most at risk from eating mercury-tainted fish."7


1 Information from: Encyclopedia.com, keyword: "methylmercury"
2 Information source
3 Lazaroff, Cat, Environment Ministers Call for Action on Mercury, Environment News Service, 10 February 2003 4 BushGreenwatch.com, Critics Blast EPA's New Mercury Proposal As Benefiting Industry, Endangering Children, 2 February 2004
5 Information source
6 BushGreenwatch.com, Congressman Question Industry Role in EPA Mercury Rule-Making, 19 February 2004
7 BushGreenwatch.com, Backlash Builds Against Bush Plan to Delay Mercury Clean Up, 26 March 2004

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