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Conko and Wildermuth - Environmental Source Air Mercury

Conko and Wildermuth - Environmental Source Air Mercury

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Published by: Competitive Enterprise Institute on Dec 03, 2010
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202-331-1010 www.cei.org Competitive Enterprise Institute
Mercury Pollution and Regulation
Gregory Conko and Morgan Wildermuth
Health issues related to methylmercury infish—which are discussed in the “ChemicalRisk” section of 
The Environmental Source
are only half of the mercury policy debate. Of equal concern to many is the source of thatmercury. Some see the alleged consumer healthrisk from mercury exposure as a justificationfor restricting mercury emissions from coal-and oil-fueled electric utility power plants.Because methylmercury in fish is unhealthy forconsumers, critics argue, mercury power plantemissions must be significantly reduced in or-der to improve public health.However, even if the amount of mercury inthe American diet did pose some genuine healthrisk, it still is not clear that even sizable reduc-tions in mercury emissions from U.S. powerplants would have an appreciable effect on ex-posure to methylmercury. In contrast, the costof complying with new power plant emissionsregulations is estimated to have a large humanimpact.
Origins of Mercury in the Environment
Mercury is a naturally occurring elementthat appears in the environment in elementalform, as well as in organic and inorganic com-pounds. In its various forms, mercury cyclesthrough the environment—in air, land, andwater—and is circulated and modified by bothnatural and human (anthropogenic) activities.
1. United Nations Environment Programme,
Global Mercury Assessment 
(Geneva: United Nations Envi-ronment Programme Chemicals, 2002). See also Mark
The Environmental SourceCompetitive Enterprise Institute www.cei.org 202-331-1010
Most of the mercury in power plant emis-sions is in either elemental or inorganic form.It is the organic compound methylmercury,however, that accumulates in fish and other an-imals. Methylmercury is created in two primaryways. First, elemental mercury can bind withdissolved organic carbon in oceans and otherwaterways. Second, certain microorganisms insoil and water can ingest inorganic mercuryand add carbon atoms to the molecules in aprocess called
. The elemental andinorganic mercury in power plant emissions
be converted into methylmercury in eachof these ways. However, extensive study of themercury cycle shows that only a small portionof the mercury from anthropogenic sources isconverted to methylmercury.
Organic compounds such as methylmercuryreadily bind to proteins, and methylmercurybinds easily with fats in the tissues of livingorganisms. Once it begins to accumulate inaquatic organisms such as algae and plankton,methylmercury becomes more concentrated asit bioaccumulates up the food chain. Small fisheat the algae and plankton, amassing greatermethylmercury levels, and larger fish accumu-late still higher levels by eating small fish.
Wheeler, “Measuring Mercury,” Environmental HealthPerspectives 104, no. 8 (1996): 826–31.2. Leonard Levin, “Mercury Sources, Transport, andFate in the Atmosphere,” in U.S. Department of Energy,National Technology Laboratory,
Proceedings of theMercury Control Technology R&D Program ReviewMeeting 
(Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy),and Leonard Levin, “Prepared Statement of LeonardLevin, Ph.D., Technical Leader, EPRI, Palo Alto, Cali-fornia,” Senate Committee on Environment and PublicWorks, Senate Hearing 108-359,
Climate History and the Science Underlying Fate, Transport, and Health Ef-fects of Mercury Emissions
, 108th Congress (July 29,2003), 211–15.
Historical records show that fish have al-ways had trace amounts of methylmercury,however, and that the amounts have remainedrelatively stable throughout the years, despitelarge increases in mercury emissions in the lat-ter half of the 20th century.
French scientists,for example, recently found that methylmer-cury levels measured in Yellowfin tuna werethe same in 1998 as they were in 1971, despitea prediction of a 9 to 26 percent increase thatwould have corresponded with increases inglobal mercury emissions.
Fish caught duringthe late 19th and early 20th centuries—andpreserved at the Smithsonian Institution—haveaverage methylmercury levels more than threetimes higher than a similar sample of fish to-day.
Similarly, the amount of methylmercury inhuman bodies today is within the same range as
3. Matthew Barber, “Survey of Metals and Other El-ements,” Food Service Information Sheet 48/04, U.K.Food Standards Agency, London, March 2004, http:// www.foodstandards.gov.uk/science/surveillance/fsis-2004branch/fsis4804metals. See also U.S. Department of Human Health Services and U.S. Environmental Protec-tion Agency, “Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish andShellfish,” U.S. Department of Human Health Servicesand U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington,DC, February 2006, http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html.4. Anne M. Kraepiel, Klaus Keller, Henry B. Chin, Eliz-abeth G. Malcolm, and François M. Morel, “Sources andVariations of Mercury in Tuna,”
Environmental Scienceand Technology
37, no. 24 (2003): 5551–58.5. G.E. Miller, P.M. Grant, R. Kishore, F. J. Steinkruger,F. S. Rowland, and V. P. Guinn, “Mercury Concentrationsin Museum Specimens of Tuna and Swordfish,”
 175, no. 4026 (1972): 1121–22. See also C. D. Car-rington, G. M. Cramer, and P. M. Bolger, “A Risk Assess-ment for Methylmercury in Tuna,”
Water, Air and Soil Pollution
97, nos. 3–4 (1997): 273–83; National Fish-eries Institute, “NFI Position Statement on Joint FDA/ EPA Mercury Advisory,” National Fisheries Institute,McLean, VA, March 2004, http://www.nfi.org/?a=news&b=eMedia+Kit&c=&x=3050; and U.S Department of Human Health Services and U.S. Environmental Protec-
Clean Air Act202-331-1010 www.cei.org Competitive Enterprise Institute
that in preserved human corpses from severalcenturies ago.
Thus, ample evidence shows thatthe range of methylmercury to which humansare exposed has remained essentially constantor falling over the past century, despite steadilyrising levels of anthropogenic mercury emis-sions during that time.
Mercury Power Plant Emissions
A large proportion of mercury added tothe environment each year comes from natu-ral earth processes, not human processes.
Andanthropogenic sources in the United States rep-resent less than one percent of the total annualmercury deposition. The U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency (EPA) estimates that 4,400to 7,500 tons of mercury are emitted into theatmosphere each year from both natural andhuman-generated sources.
 Natural sources of mercury emissions in-clude volatilization from the Earth’s crust andthe oceans, volcanic action, and erosion. An-thropogenic sources are estimated to make up50 to 75 percent of the total atmospheric de-position, but that includes a variety of sources,such as the mining of elemental mercury for usein such things as thermometers and sphygmo-
tion Agency, “Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish andShellfish.”6. Food and Drug Administration, “Methylmercury,Transcript of the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition,Food Advisory Committee Methylmercury Meetings,Beltsville, MD, July 23–24, 2002, http://www.fda.gov/ OHRMS/DOCKETS/ac/02/transcripts/3872t2.htm.7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Clean AirMercury Rule: Basic Information,” March 2, 2006, U.S.Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC,http://www.epa.gov/air/mercuryrule/basic.htm.8. Ibid
manometers, not just power plant emissions.
 Furthermore, most of the mercury from powerplant emissions is generated not in industrialcountries such as the United States, but inpoorer countries with few pollution controls.
The EPA indicates that U.S. power plantemissions account for approximately 48 tonsper year of mercury deposition, a level that hasbeen falling over time.
And only an estimated 1percent or less of mercury that ends up in a bodyof water is converted into methylmercury.
Con-sequently, even a total elimination of mercuryemissions from U.S. power plants would be ex-pected to have much less than a 1 percent effecton human dietary exposure to methylmercury.Despite this sobering information, the envi-ronmental activist community continues to scareconsumers and the media into believing thatmore stringent emissions regulations are neces-sary to address the alleged problem of methyl-mercury in fish.
In 2003, when the EPA pro-posed a simplification of Clean Air Act (CAA)regulations that would relax emissions standardsfor a group of Midwestern power plants whilesimultaneously requiring a two-thirds reduction
9. United Nations Environment Programme,
Global Mercury Assessment 
.10. Richard Carlton, Paul Chu, Leonard Levin, et. al.,“[Electric Power Research Institute] Comments on EPA-Proposed Emission Standards/Proposed Standards of Performance, Electric Utility Steam Generating Units:Mercury Emissions,” Electric Power Research Institute,Palo Alto, CA, June 16, 2004.11. EPA, “Clean Air Mercury Rule.”12. Harold M. Koenig,
Mercury in the Environment: TheProblems, the Risks, and the Consequences
(Annapolis,MD: Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy,2003).13. Natural Resources Defense Council, “Mercury Con-tamination in Fish: A Guide to Staying Health and Fight-ing Back,” Natural Resources Defense Council, New York,http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/index.asp.

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