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The lunacy of the Mad Hatter, pouring tea and posing riddles about ravens and writing desks, has entertained Americans since Disney (and later Johnny Depp) brought him to the silver screen.  Lewis Carroll’s character arose from the phrase “mad as a hatter,” which was commonly heard in 1865, when Alice in Wonderland was first published.  At that time mercury was used to cure felt for hats, and mercury exposure caused hatmakers to exhibit confused speech, distorted vision, twitching limbs, muscle tremors, extreme excitability, and hallucinations.

Despite this obvious impact on human health, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that the United States and other countries enacted regulations to limit mercury exposure, both in workplaces like the hatters’ and the population at large.

Since then studies have shown that even low levels of mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.  It can also harm the developing nervous system of unborn and young children and cause learning disabilities.  

Ingesting just over one-tenth of an ounce of mercurycan kill a 150 pound adult.

Now that we recognize that mercury is a powerful neurotoxin with devastating effects on human health, it should be a no-brainer—we should do everything we can to keep mercury out of the environment, so that we can keep it out of human bodies.

But that has not been happening.  In the United States coal-fired power plants are by far the largest source of mercury pollution, and they have been allowed to continue to spew huge amounts of poisonous mercury: each year they emit 48 tons.  The mercury that pours from their smokestacks falls to the earth when it rains, where it enters our rivers and lakes.  There it is converted to methylmercury, which is an organic form of mercury that accumulates in the bodies of fish, as well as the bodies of humans who eat the fish or drink the contaminated water.

The alarming results of this are found in study after study.  One in twelve pregnant women has high enough mercury levels in her body to harm her fetus.  As many as 300,000 babies per year are at increased risk of learning disabilities as a result of prenatal mercury exposure.  The risk of autismin children goes up in relation to their home’s proximity to a coal plant.

Texans are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of the poison since Texas emits more mercury than any other state.

Companies like Luminant Energy, Texas' biggest coal mining company and owner of the dirtiest power plants in the state, have given generously to Governor Perry’s campaigns over the years, and he has done everything in his power to return the favor.  

Rather than working to protect Texans’ health and our environment, Perry’s appointees at the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have helped power plants get around environmental regulations and fast-track new construction.  Last year TCEQ was found to have violated the law to help the Las Brisas coal plantlook as though it would be in compliance with the Clean Air Act when it applied for a permit.  

As a result of Perry and the TCEQ working on behalf of polluters instead of the people, coal-fired plants in Texas spewed out 16,350 pounds of toxic mercury pollution in 2009 alone.

But this month the Obama administration could finally bring Texans the clean air and clean water they deserve.  Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have revised air-quality standards to comply with the Clean Air Act and limit the amount of toxins such as mercury that power plants can emit.  The proposed standards would require coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury by 91 percent, hydrochloric acid by 91 percent and particulate matter by 55 percent.  It is up to President Obama to confirm these new standards and keep these deadly poisons out of our air, our water, and our bodies.

The power industry fought to block these safeguards for decades, and worked closely with the Bush administration to set standards illegally low.  This past September Republicans in the US House of Representatives passed a billaimed at delaying restrictions on power plants’ mercury emissions.  Ignoring the health benefits, they said the regulations would cost too much.  Thankfully, the Senate has not taken up this assault on public health.

It is up to President Obama to ignore the pressure, and the money, of industry lobbyists and finally put the health of our children ahead of coal companies’ profits.  The question is not the cost of electricity; it is who pays the cost.  Dirty coal may produce a kilowatt of electricity more cheaply than clean energy technologies, but the difference in price is paid at the doctor’s office, and in the suffering of children who live with neurological damage and learning disabilities brought on by mercury poisoning.

For too long the United States, and especially the state of Texas, has sacrificed the health of our children for cheap energy and coal industry profits.  It is time for President Obama to bring an end to this madness, stand up for our children, and enact strong mercury regulations.

Originally posted to No Border Wall on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 11:36 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you. Lots of good information. (5+ / 0-)

    “Wall Street owns the country. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The parties lie to us, and the political speakers mislead us.” - Mary Elizabeth Lease, 1890. It's late. Occupy everywhere.

    by DawnN on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 05:08:32 PM PST

  •  I just replaced two thermostats (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    maryabein, TomP

    at my mom's house; a house she and my dad owned for almost 40 years.  

    The thermostat is ingenious in its construction; a bimetal coil that expands and shrinks based on temperature.  It is attached to a glass vial with a quantity of mercury, which will turn on or off the electrial connection as the vial goes back and forth.

    She called the town to ask how to dispose of it.

    It's about time I changed my signature.

    by Khun David on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 08:15:13 PM PST

  •  Fat chance, though (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Roadbed Guy

    You remember the Ozone rule right?  I'm sure it'll be too expensive or not the right time because it'll be revised in 2035 again anyway.

    We've been down this path before

    Intelligent, passionate, perceptive people will always disagree, but we should not let that disagreement, however heartfelt, lead us to become deaf to those better angels of our nature.

    by Mindful Nature on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 09:01:50 PM PST

  •  While Obama's at it . . . how about tooth fillings (9+ / 0-)

    containing mercury not be allowed in human mouths?

    It's unbelievable that the American Dental Association seeks to suppress dentists from warning their patients about mercury fillings - telling them they could lose their license for doing so. No, I can't give you a link to that - my (unusually honest) dentist told me this in confidence, and I believe him. 60 Minutes did a segment on this (years old), which I watched right in the dentist's waiting room.

    Mercury has been indicted as a contributing factor to Alzheimers - a growing epidemic the likes of which are at an all-time high and still growing. Study after study is done about what to do with all the coming Alzheimer's patients, but who is studying what it is we are all ingesting (tooth fillings, fish, emissions in the air we breathe, etc., etc.), and putting a stop to it?

    Grrrr. Thanks for a well-written diary on the big M word.

    •  I got all my mercury fillings out (3+ / 0-)

      last year! I saw an NBC news segment on the lady that had a side of her face drop, like she had had a stoke, except she didn't. Long story short, she continued to go down hill until they tried replacing all her mercury fillings, she had a lot. She slowly started feeling better, got the use of her face back, and all her other symptoms disappeared over the course of the year.

      The AMA agreed to look at the issue AGAIN! but you know what, don't hold your breath waiting for them to say it is harmful. They would be libel for allowing it many years after facts were known.

      I studied the issue before I got my fillings out and read many many reports detailing the harm it causes. There was a German study that was pretty conclusive, and shocking. Yet here in the good old US of A, crickets. THEY KNOW IT IS HARMFUL, yet they fear the lawsuits more than helping the public. What else is new.

      Truth is harmonious, lies are discordant.

      by Babsnc on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 05:34:18 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Artisan Gold Mining with Mercury is on the rise (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action, TomP, ozsea1

    due to the price of gold in recent years. This also represents a significant contribution to mercury pollution.

    Here's an excellent investigative article/expose on the practise of artisanal gold mining that is relevant:

    Mining on top of the world

    You could be listening to Netroots Radio. "We are but temporary visitors on this planet. The microbes own this place" <- Me

    by yuriwho on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 11:50:38 PM PST

  •  Another major source is fluorescent lighting (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kvetchnrelease

    and the new push to eliminate incandescent bulbs. Those new compact fluorescent light bulbs all contain mercury. If they are not disposed of/recycled properly, all that mercury will end up in our landfills. IMO this was a terrible bureaucratic decision especially when LED based lights are becoming feasible in both cost and tech.

    You could be listening to Netroots Radio. "We are but temporary visitors on this planet. The microbes own this place" <- Me

    by yuriwho on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 11:56:53 PM PST

    •  Repealing legislation that banned incandescent (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ozsea1

      lighting is problematic because many plants that produced incandescents are no longer operating in that capacity anymore.

      Mercury vapor is emitted when the bulb is on as well.

      Some...spoke with strong and powerful voices, which proclaimed in accents trumpet-tongued,"I am beautiful, and I rule". Others murmured in tones scarcely audible, but exquisetly soft and sweet, "I am little, and I am beloved"." Armandine A.L. Dupin

      by Kvetchnrelease on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 03:58:04 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The amount of mercury in CFLs is (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ozsea1

      much less than the amount that is spewed into the enviroment by burning coal to make up for the increased amount of electricity required to power incandescent bulbs.

      If you do the math, it was a very good decision.

    •  The validity of your point depends on geography. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy, ozsea1

      The truth of the matter is that, in areas where most electricity is generated by coal, using a CFL results in a net reduction of environmental mercury... even if you smash the used CFL on the ground after it's done and don't bother recycling it

      That is because the amnount of mercury in a CFL is less than the amount of mercury that the power plant would have emitted had you been powering an energy intensive incandescent bulb for 5 years instead of a CFL.

      Of course that level of nuance is exactly why you can never explain this concept to rightwing morons who love to bash CFL's for their mercury (and yet are oddly silent on coal-sourced mercury).

      Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!

      by bigtimecynic on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 06:01:06 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Some numbers are - based on the (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ozsea1, bigtimecynic

        information given in this diary - that it takes about 2,800 mg of mercury to kill you.

        Or, about the amount in 1,000 CFLs.

        What's the chance that you'll break that many in your house (let alone efficiently take all of the resulting mercury into your body)?

        In any event, people willingly and often dose themselves with a different neurotoxic agent - namely ethyl alcohol - to levels that amount to about 20 or 30% of a fatal dose.  

        So instead of saying 1,000 CFLs, the relevant number is actually 200 or 300.  I suspect that very few people break that many in their house on a regular basis.  Or ever, for that matter.

  •  Externalized Costs. (5+ / 0-)

    Kill us every time.

    If externalized costs to the environment and public health were built into the price of carbon fuels, they would not be cheaper than alternative sustainable energy. Especially if the price at the pump included the cost of carbon energy subsidies and tax breaks. And, oh yes, endless war.

    It's that simple.

  •  You're right. Excellent diary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tytalus

    I'm from the Elizabeth Warren and Darcy Burner Wing of the Democratic Party!

    by TomP on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 10:27:27 AM PST

  •  Natural Gas is our best current bet (0+ / 0-)

    I think we need to go straight to the source. Burning coal is simply one of the worst ideas period. With centuries of cheap, clean natural gas coming online, I think it's well past time we closed the book on coal.

    Beyond the excess carbon problem, a subject which I even lean a bit right on, the MERCURY being separated out of that coal is going to slowly poison our entire ecosystem.

     There is a strong body of evidence suggesting that coal's tendency to bind to free mercury and other heavy metals is one of the reasons that higher order intelligent life is able to exist on earth.  An indisputable fact is that such life did not exist until AFTER the carboniferous era roughly 300M years ago. This is the time when fluctuating sea levels and a huge explosion of tropical style bio-mass created the bulk of the worlds coal deposits. Shortly thereafter, the extant biome of plants, simple multicellular marine organisms, and insects began an astonishing increase in complexity. The next era gave us dinosaurs, birds, mammals, large fish, etc, as well as the split between angiosperm and gymnosperm vegetation, which defines our current landscape. So, whether correlative or causative, we know that complex nervous systems did not exist on earth until there were vast coal seams absorbing mercury out of rain and groundwater. We also know that mercury is a potent neurotoxin. So to dig up the very coal that captured all that mercury, burn it, and spew the shit back into our atmosphere, seems, to put it mildly, like a bad idea.

    CO2 and climate change I think can be dealt by moderation of output, human and animal migration, and technology, all things well within our reach.  But if we poison an entire strata, worldwide, with mercury, and every single species on earth begins to become weaker, slower, stupider, and less robust, we will be well and truly fucked.

    So theres a simple message here: Coal is a disaster. Fracking may be problematic, and brought to us by the same people who brought us Valdez and Macondo, but if we can get the water contamination under control, it's far and away the best thing we can implement right now to replace coal. Fantasies about running the whole grid on solar or wind are just that: fantasies.

    Left Coast Libertarian

    by pacspeed on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 11:51:59 AM PST

  •  To think.... (0+ / 0-)
    Ingesting just over one-tenth of an ounce of mercury can kill a 150 pound adult.

    We use to use mercury thermometers orally.  I actually broke one that was in my mouth as a child.  Thankfully the mercury spilled harmlessly to the floor instead of my mouth.

  •  Rick Perry says Mercury is Good for You (0+ / 0-)

    It was good for him, the shining lone star of Texas intellectuals.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 06:24:45 PM PST

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