Time to heed warnings that mercury brings

Mercury has been in the news the past couple of months. Papers have run articles about the dangerous mercury levels in America’s fish, and the Associated Press had stories in August about anglers pushing for stricter mercury controls and about the high levels of mercury in New Hampshire’s fish. As a pediatrician, a Republican, and a decades-long user of New Hampshire’s lakes, these stories hit home.

Mercury’s path into our fish, and subsequently onto our dinner tables, begins with coal-fired power plants in the Midwest and elsewhere, the primary source of mercury pollution in the United States. From the smokestacks of these plants, mercury precipitates back to the earth, entering our lakes and streams. Once there, it converts into a more toxic form, methyl mercury, and accumulates in the tissues of fish.

Remarkably, regulations governing mercury emissions from power plants have recently undergone an unfortunate and dangerous backslide. For the past four years, the current administration has been silently rewriting many of our most valuable and productive environmental laws.

Coal-fired power plants, the dinosaurs of our energy production system, have been given a new lease on life. Instead of controlling mercury pollution, the current administration announced earlier this year that it plans to delay most emissions reductions by more than a decade.

The result of this strategic backpedaling may be a 300 percent increase in mercury emissions over the next 15 years, resulting in possibly 200 tons of excess mercury in our air and water, and ultimately on our dinner tables.

The facts about mercury are scary.

Mercury as a neurotoxin can cause learning and developmental disabilities in children and fetuses. One out of every six U.S. women of childbearing age has mercury in her body at levels that threaten her unborn children. EPA data found that almost 90 percent of fish taken from Maine waters and 75 percent from New Hampshire waters contained unsafe levels of mercury.

All of New Hampshire’s lakes and rivers are under a fish consumption advisory because of mercury. The state Department of Health and Human Services has warned pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children not to eat any fish caught in New Hampshire waters more than once a month.

New Hampshire’s fish may be our version of the canary in the coal mine, offering us an early warning of the dangers of an ongoing, quiet rolling-back of our nation’s environmental protections.

It would be a shame if New Hampshire’s fish were no longer a tourist attraction and a recreational escape, but rather a threat to women’s and children’s health.

As a lifelong Republican, I think it is likewise a shame that the current administration has failed to take a stand for public health, opting instead, apparently, to try to please its polluting industry friends.

Jim Pilliod, M.D., R-Belmont, is a pediatrician, a state representative from Belmont and is currently co-chair of the statutory Environment and Public Health Commission.

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