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Catching the Limit

Mercury Contamination of America's Food

Wednesday, December 17, 1997

Catching the Limit

Mercury Contamination of America's Food

Executive Summary

A long-overdue report to Congress confirms that mercury pollution from power generation and waste incineration is a serious environmental and public health problem. Not only is mercury extremely toxic to the developing human brain and nervous system, but it has become ubiquitous in the environment and commonly contaminates many foods, particularly fish, at levels of public health concern. According to the EPA, more than 1.6 million pregnant women, children, and women of child bearing age are exposed to unsafe levels of mercury from fish alone (EPA 1996).

Mercury gets into the environment primarily from combustion of wastes, including medical and municipal wastes and sludge, and the combustion of coal for power generation. In spite of the nation’s clean air and clean water laws, these major sources of mercury remain uncontrolled or poorly regulated. Mercury now contaminates fish so severely that it has triggered more than 1,600 government warnings against eating fish, so-called “fish consumption advisories”, in 37 states. Indeed, fish consumption advisories for mercury are on the rise, nearly doubling from 1993 to 1996 (EPA 1997). Nine of those states: Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont have some form of statewide restrictions or prohibitions on fish consumption due to mercury contamination (EPA 1997).

Mercury in the food supply

Locally caught fish are not the only sources of mercury. Many fish items purchased at the local grocery store such as canned tuna, haddock, fish sticks and shrimp also contain mercury. Other foods that are sources of mercury include: spinach, oatmeal, and eggs. Notably, the EPA’s estimate that 1.6 million women and children are at risk does not include consumption of foods other than fish.

Reducing mercury emissions

The EPA report identifies a serious public health problem from mercury in the environment and the food supply. Recent EPA rules to reduce emissions from medical waste incinerators, however, will do virtually nothing to reduce current levels of mercury pollution. In fact, these regulations actually encourage continued burning of mercury containing waste because they do not require separation of mercury containing devices from the waste stream.

Medical sources of mercury are the simplest to eliminate, via costeffective source separation and substitution of non-mercury-containing products at medical facilities. Mercury-containing devices in the medical waste stream include batteries, thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, fluorescent lamps and feeding tubes. When incinerated, mercury is released into the air, or contained in the resulting ash destined for disposal on land. Mercury from other major sources also can be reduced dramatically with available pollution control technologies.

Recommendations

The EPA report should not cause most people to reduce their consumption of commercially caught fish although pregnant women should take the warnings quite seriously and limit consumption of all fish. The EPA report should serve as a call to arms for industry and government to slash mercury emissions and allow citizens to safely consume this important part of the diet.

  • EPA and FDA should require states to base fish consumption advisories on the most restrictive threshold available to ensure that populations who eat more than average amounts of fish are protected.
  • State agencies should require stricter emissions limits, and waste segregation programs for mercury as part of their implementation plans for the medical waste incinerator rule.
  • Medical facilities should begin a “mercury-free” campaign to phase out mercury containing products and segregate mercury waste as long as it remains in use.

The Health Care Without Harm Coalition is prepared to assist hospitals and states by providing expert advice from medical and environmental professionals who have a track record working with hospitals and other medical providers to reduce mercury emissions.

 

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