Mercury is one of the most toxic poisons known to science. Even small amounts of it, once ingested, can cause a long list of serious health threats. The main source of mercury exposure for adults is from eating contaminated fish.
Yet, every year, 70,000 pounds of mercury air pollution are spewed from America's coal-fired power plants – which are responsible for 72% of our mercury air emissions.
This pollution literally rains down on our communities and is absorbed into our streams, rivers, and lakes. Once in our waterways, microorganisms convert it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that bioaccummulates up the food chain from bacteria and plankton to large predatory fish, where concentrations of mercury compounds can be up to a million times higher than the surrounding water.
In 2008 alone, some 1.3 million river-miles and 17 million lake-acres – including the entire Great Lakes region – were under mercury-related fish contamination advisories.
Mercury pollution poses especially serious risks to pregnant women and their infants. That is a main reason why pregnant women or women who want to have kids are warned to limit consumption of – or to avoid entirely – certain kinds of fish.
In spite of these warnings, 1 in 10 American women in their child-rearing years have unsafe blood-mercury levels and an estimated 410,000 infants are born every year having been exposed to unsafe levels of mercury while in the womb.
Because their brains are still developing, infants and young children are especially vulnerable to serious health threats from mercury exposure, including:
Language disorders and memory problems;
Impaired vision and hearing; and many other harmful effects.
High level mercury exposure in adults can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.
Mercury and Minorities
Mercury pollution does not distinguish between gender, race, or economic status. However, minority communities are often exposed to more pollution and are more vulnerable to health risks.
A recent study of more than 2,500 American women and children found that on average Mexican-American children had higher levels of mercury in their bodies than non-Hispanic white children.
And a 2002 study warned that African Americans are more likely to live near a power plant and to live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards. This study also reports that one-third of African Americans are avid anglers and are more likely to eat fish more often and in larger portions – risking higher exposure to mercury pollution.