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Fighting a Good Fight: Mercury and the Moms Clean Air Force

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Did you know that the phrase "mad as a hatter" originated in 18th century England, where mercury was used in the production of felt, a material used in the manufacture of hats common at the time? People who worked in these hat factories were exposed to small amounts of the metal, which accumulated and caused some workers to develop dementia caused by mercury poisoning. The phrase became popular as a way to refer to someone who acted insane. While much fewer people are likely to be caught wearing felt hats these days, mercury poisoning is still a problem and there are still things to be done to reduce or eliminate exposure to it. We are fortunate that there are some people actively fighting that fight, namely some of our senators and a group called Moms Clean Air Force.

In our century, mercury poisoning is most likely to manifest itself in the developing hearts, lungs, and brains of fetuses, infants and toddlers. In others, it shows up as vision, hearing, or speech impairments, and more surreptitiously as a contributing cause in asthma and heart attacks and premature deaths. The medical industry, which prescribed mercury as a curative medicine until it's destructive effects began to be known in the 1920's, now shuns it, and rightfully so. The energy industry, however, does not and is, in fact, the largest producer of mercury emissions.

So it was that in 2005, the U.S.'s Environment Protection Agency began seeking to reduce and cap mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, since those emission are a by-product of burning coal. This year, those efforts came under attack by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Senate Joint Resolution 37 would have overturned a previous EPA mercury rule and permanently prevented the EPA from ever making a rule about mercury emissions, thus indirectly causing, some claim, 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 4,700 heart attacks annually.

Thankfully, this proposed bill was rejected just over two weeks ago by a vote of little over half of the senate, or 53 senators. This was thanks in part due to Moms Clean Air Force, a coalition of over 80,000 parents and bloggers, who conducted an intense phone and letter campaign to get their senators and others to vote against Senator Inhofe's bill. We can all breathe a substantial sigh of relief knowing that there are those politicians and parents who are knowledgeable, outward-looking, and willing to fight for better public health.

However, notice that, while 53 senators voted against Senator Inhofe's bill, that means that 46 senators voted for it (one abstaining). Why on earth would they vote for something that is such an obvious threat to public health? The stance of the The United States Chamber of Congress' Institute for 21st Century Energy may give some indication:

The rule, and EPA’s rushed implementation timeline, substantially raise electricity costs for consumers and businesses, force the abrupt closure of dozens of coal-fired power plants, and put new strains on the reliability of the nation’s electrical grid. The significant cost and unrealistic compliance period of the Utility MACT rule will have a major negative impact on job creation and consumer demand for products and services. Despite these significant adverse impacts, the rule will deliver only modest reductions in fine particle emissions––already subject to other regulations––with minimal corresponding health benefits. Further, the rule would barely reduce already decreasing mercury emissions.

In the face of such serious claims, it is important that we, as ordinary people, consumers, and parents, make an effort to get as much information as we can about issues like this. If we are overloaded or apathetic in the quest for such information, it's best to err on the side of our family's health and our environment, and rely on those people, like Moms Clean Air Force, who have similar interests at heart.

What do you think about the mercury issue?

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.

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