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You’re being poisoned
Mercury is in your air, water, and food. Maine wants to solve the problem, but the federal government stands in the way
BY JENNIFER LUNDEN


Kay Meyer doesn’t know for sure if the mercury that made her so sick came from a lifelong diet that included large amounts of tuna and swordfish, the three years she spent working as a dental hygienist, or a mouth full of mercury amalgam fillings.

Now 59, Meyer raised three children on her own as a single mom; she was always a healthy, capable woman. "I did what I needed to do and what I wanted to do. I was generally very healthy," she says. But, 10 years ago, Meyer’s health took a decided downswing. The worst thing was the chronic fatigue; some days she could barely get out of bed. She became so sensitive to chemicals that even the ink from the newspaper made her dizzy and headachy, and she often had to leave restaurants if someone nearby was wearing perfume or cologne. Her weight dropped 60 pounds when she developed severe food allergies. She couldn’t think clearly, had difficulty sleeping, suffered from punishing headaches, and became depressed and anxious.

Meyer calculates that over 10 years she saw 41 doctors and "I’ve had so much testing done." But they could find nothing wrong. Finally, she was referred to a naturopath, who thought to test her for mercury using hair, urine, and blood samples; the level of mercury in Meyer’s body was extremely elevated.

Because it is such an insidious part of our daily lives, accumulates gradually in our bodies, and expresses itself differently in different people, mercury poisoning is not easily identified. What is known, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is that one in 12 women of childbearing age has mercury levels high enough to put a fetus in danger of neurological harm. In Maine, the numbers are even higher. According to the Maine Bureau of Health, 20 percent of Maine women carry enough mercury in their bodies to cause permanent brain damage to a fetus. And new research from the Environmental Protection Agency concludes that 630,000 infants are born each year in the US with blood mercury levels high enough to double the risk of poor brain development. That’s twice the previous estimate, which means twice as many children than previously thought are born each year with a heightened risk for disabilities like mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, and blindness.

So, when the Bush administration announced in December its plans to roll back standards that would have cut mercury emissions by 90 percent in four years, Kay Meyer wasn’t the only one to express grave concerns. Vocal, too, was the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine (ACHM), a coalition of groups with a combined membership of 25,000 Mainers, which has been working successfully on the local level to rid Maine of mercury. But for all its local progress, says Maggie Drummond, Maine Field Director for the Toxics Action Center, a member of the ACHM, "Rollbacks on a federal level will have a huge impact on the state of Maine."

Already, rain in Bridgton is contaminated with "more than twice the generic EPA aquatic life and wildlife standard and over 14 times the new more protective human-health standard developed for the Great Lakes," according to studies by the Mercury Deposition Network. "The mercury in rain falling on Acadia National Park peaked at . . . close to four times the current EPA standard and over 23 times higher than the Great Lakes human-health standard." On average, the rain in Maine carries mercury levels more than three times greater than the EPA’s updated human-health standard for the Great Lakes.

Twenty-five percent of that mercury has migrated from other parts of the US, mostly coming from airborne particulates generated by coal-fired plants. Another 25 percent comes from global sources. Fifty percent originates right here at home. Maine doesn’t have any coal-fired power plants, but it does have four incinerators — where mercury is burned and released into the air — located in Portland, Biddeford, Auburn, and Orrington. After the incinerators, the biggest single source of mercury in Maine is Dragon Cement in Thomaston. HoltraChem, in Orrington, a now defunct chlor-alkali plant which once produced chlorine for paper plants, is one of the largest mercury-contaminated sites in the country.

There are, however, two coal-fired power plants in New Hampshire. One, Schiller-Newington, sits right on the border of Maine, and, due to grandfathering, has been able to continue polluting without installing modern, cleaner technology.

In 1998, the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers promised to "virtually eliminate" mercury emissions in the region. This pledge has provided a springboard for Maine lawmakers. In 2000, legislators passed a bill requiring that mercury be collected and recycled rather than disposed of in incinerators. In 2001, a new law banned the sale of mercury thermometers in Maine. In 2002, legislation was adopted phasing out mercury thermostats and requiring that mercury switches be removed from cars before disposal, with manufacturers required to pay for the removal.

Maine has proven to be a leader when it comes to eradicating mercury from our environment. But, according to Maggie Drummond, while "all of the various local campaigns and pieces of state legislation that are dealing with mercury will be helpful, rollbacks on the federal level will be much more harmful to our health."

Two years ago, the EPA’s own scientists said that the Clean Air Act could achieve a 90 percent reduction of mercury emissions from power plants using "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" (MACT). A Clinton Administration EPA decision to impose MACT standards on mercury by 2007 would have done just that. Now, Bush’s EPA is proposing to rescind the determination that mercury from power plants should be regulated as a toxic substance. Under the Bush proposal, coal-fired power plants like the one on Maine’s border will reduce their mercury pollution from the current 48 tons per year to 34 tons in 2010, and 15 in 2018, for a total reduction of just 70 percent. Amanda Sears, Campaign Director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center (another member of the ACHM), says that’s not enough. "It’s technology that’s achievable now, and there’s no reason for companies not to achieve it now . . . We shouldn’t be continuing this problem another 18 years." Sears points out that the Bush proposal leaves at risk the grandchildren of women having babies today.

The White House proposal also provides the opportunity for mercury polluters to avoid making any reductions at all by buying pollution credits from other, cleaner plants. While this sounds like it might be a fair, market-based system to reduce emissions, what it really does is set up the danger of mercury "hot spots." For instance, the Schiller-Newington power plant across the bridge in New Hampshire could buy pollution credits, continue their current polluting, and disproportionately impact neighboring towns like Kittery and Eliot.

Congressman Tom Allen (D) condemns Bush’s rollbacks. "People need to understand what this administration is doing to undermine public health in the name of efficiency for industry." Allen points out that because Maine is downwind of coal-fired plants mainly congregated in the Midwest, mercury levels in loon feathers is four times higher here than in Oregon. That and Maine’s strong environmental ethic has generated bipartisan opposition to these rollbacks amongst the Maine delegation. In fact, says Allen, "The whole delegation [himself, Congressman Mike Michaud (D), Senator Susan Collins (R), and Senator Olympia Snowe (R)] is united on this."

But Allen isn’t just concerned for Maine loons. He knows that mercury levels in loons are a measuring stick for mercury levels in our environment. And he knows that mercury in our environment eventually winds up in our bodies.

Dr. Dave Evers, director and founder of the BioDiversity Research Institute in Falmouth, has been studying mercury levels in loons since 1994. He says that 20 to 25 percent of loons in Maine have high mercury levels, high enough, in fact, that they are at risk of neurological and behavioral problems; those loons fledge 40 percent fewer young. And some tree swallows in Acadia National Park are more mercury-contaminated than birds at a Superfund site in Massachusetts, according to Jerry Longcore, of the US Geological Survey. Both scientists hesitate to make any dire pronouncements, noting that it’s difficult to tell if mercury is putting their study populations at risk. At the same time, they say that these birds are representational of the larger picture. "So in that sense," says Longcore, "it may be not so important whether they’re affected or not. They are part of the cycling of the mercury from one place to another, and the potential for being picked up by other [predator] species is certainly there."

And we Mainers are a predator species. George Smith, Executive Director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, comments that "The greatest impact, obviously, is on sportsmen. The general population is one step away from that." He notes that virtually everyone he knows has cut back on eating Maine-caught fish, due to concerns about methylmercury (a potent form of mercury that accumulates up the aquatic food chain), says Smith, considering Maine’s heritage as a sportsman’s paradise.

In fact, Maine has a fish advisory with "safe-eating guidelines," which recommend strict limits on fish consumption. They mention that fish like pickerel and bass have the highest mercury levels, since they feed on other fish. Women of childbearing age, pregnant or nursing women, and children under the age of eight should not eat any freshwater fish other than one meal per month of brook trout or landlocked salmon. All others can safely eat freshwater fish twice per month, brook trout and landlocked salmon once per week, according to the advisory.

The problem is, these safety guidelines are based on averages and estimates. A Bureau of Health brochure notes that "If you follow the guidelines, you’re safe eating the fish from over 95 percent of Maine lakes and ponds." But what about the other five percent? Bodies of water like Longcore’s study sites — Seal Cove, Hodgdon Pond, and Aunt Betty Pond, in Acadia National Park — are highly contaminated. It may be unsafe for anyone to eat any fish from these ponds.

And how’s the water near the HoltraChem site in Orrington? When it was active, it spewed mercury into the air, and poured it into the river. Dr. Evers has studied mercury levels in the fish and loons around the site since 1998, when the plant was still in operation. The highest levels of mercury were found in a group of lakes east and southeast of the site, toward Acadia National Park, in the direction of the prevailing wind. "You kind of see the plume, if you want to think of it that way, of mercury that comes from that plant. And it’s highest in the lakes closest to it, and it . . . dissipates as you get further and further away from it." Though mercury in the surrounding environment has probably declined somewhat since HoltraChem declared bankruptcy and closed in 2000, Dr. Evers says that when he did his research it was "very high. It’s some of the highest you’d see in the rest of the state." The Department of Health has not issued any advisories about the particular toxicity of these lakes.

HoltraChem is now closed, but 12 tons of mercury remain at the site. The Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), along with other concerned citizens, is fighting to make sure it is thoroughly cleaned up, and the long-term consequences adequately researched. John Dieffenbacher-Krall, MPA’s co-director, says, "As early as 1970, the environmental regulation agencies that existed before the EPA was created had some sampling done, and they found mercury contamination — no surprise — hundreds of parts per million, in the sediments of the Penobscot River. That was only three years, the plant had been in operation three years, and already you’re seeing this massive pollution. And yet despite collecting information like this, there never have been really the right kinds of scientific questions posed or answered about what is this mercury really doing?"

The MPA has collected some "suggestive evidence" of cormorants in the Penobscot being affected, of reduced bald eagle reproduction, and of elevated mercury contamination in mussels and lobsters. Dieffenbacher-Krall noted Penobscot Bay’s importance to the lobster industry. A number of communities in the area depend on lobsters for their economic survival: What if mercury contamination levels in area lobsters increased enough to put the industry at risk?

Dieffenbacher-Krall also expressed concern about a proposed Penobscot River restoration project which would involve removing two dams, opening up 500 miles of spawning habitat to fish like sturgeon, alewives, blueback herring, and 10,000 or more salmon a year. He worries that millions of additional fish will be at risk for mercury contamination.

According to Dieffenbacher-Krall, Dr. Phillipe Grandgan, one of the world’s most noted authorities on mercury exposure and human health, has determined that there’s already enough mercury in fish in the Penobscot River that eating one fish meal during pregnancy is enough to put a fetus at risk for lowered IQ, reproductive health problems, and other central nervous system damage.

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Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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