Will We Finally Get Mercury Out of Our Food?

The EPA's new standards on mercury emissions have been 21 years in the making. Will we squander the chance to reduce our exposure to this harmful toxin?

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Most pregnant women are told by their doctors to stop eating tuna — and other large predator fish — because it is contaminated with mercury. But most of us don’t know that the mercury in our food comes from air pollution, specifically, from the mercury-emissions spewing out of coal-fired power plants.

Next week the EPA is expected to post its new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). If these standards are as strong as they were when the rule went out for comment several months ago, this job-creating regulation will stand as an enormous achievement for the Obama Administration crowning work started in 1970 by President Richard Nixon with the Clean Air Act.

Because of the president’s sudden and surprising withdrawal of ozone (smog) regulations right before Labor Day, rumor has it that he will again back down in the face of vehement pressure from utility companies like American Electric Power, which serves Ohio and Texas, among other places. In 2008, AEP emitted more mercury, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide pollution than any other American utility. (The Columbus, Ohio-based AEP was also a significant contributor to Newt Gingrich’s now-defunct advocacy group, American Solutions.)

The EPA says it is holding firm. “Rather than reacting to rumors … we hope those interested in these standards will withhold judgment until they are actually finalized and released,” EPA spokesperson Dru Ealons told me in an email. The President’s Office of Management and Budget, now reviewing the MATS, says “rules are not final until the process is complete and any rumor or innuendo that suggests otherwise during the deliberative phase is not informed by the facts. Judgments on the substance of the rule are best withheld until the process reaches its natural conclusion.”

(MORE: Lisa Jackson: How Politics Hurts the EPA’s Mission)

Premature anxieties aside, here’s a “natural conclusion:” There is no conceivable way that anyone but the most cynical lobbyist or polluter could argue that mercury and other air toxics are harmless. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, which disproportionately harms the developing hearts, lungs and brains of fetuses, infants and toddlers. Mercury isn’t good for the grownups whose job it is to protect the babies, either.

And the other air toxics covered by this rule? Arsenic, chromium, nickel, known carcinogens; lead, which damages the nervous system; acid gases that irritate the nose and throat; dioxins, which affect the reproductive, endocrine and immune systems; and volatile organic compounds that weaken lungs and eyes.

In other words, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is an excellent, job-creating regulation (more on those jobs in a moment.) Premature death, chronic asthma, developmental disabilities — who wants to justify causing these?

This rule has been in the works for 21 years. You read that correctly. There’s been plenty of time to prepare — and many utilities have. It was the first President George Bush who asked the EPA to take on mercury emissions. These rules have been such a long time coming, in fact, that the Wall Street Journal published a letter last December signed by nine CEOs of coal-powered electric plants, who said “We’re okay with the EPA’s new air-quality regulations.”

“Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.” The letter went on to address plants that might close: “The units retiring are generally small, old and inefficient. These retirements are long overdue.”

Now, about those job-creating regulations: let’s visit just one company that knows how to clean up poisonous pollution, ADA Environmental Solutions in scenic Littleton, Colo. Created in 1996, ADA has 81 employees and, in 2010, had revenues of $22,281,ooo. It holds 11 U.S. patents (with 16 pending) for, among other things, systems that control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants (which produce roughly 50% of all US electricity.) This is American ingenuity and engineering at its best.

ADA’s revenues could increase fivefold as more utility companies install their activated-carbon-injection technology. The president of the company, Michael Durham, told the Denver Post that his team plans to build several new manufacturing plants “to produce a superfine carbon powder. The powder, sprayed over power-plants pollution, traps toxic particles.” Of course, new regulations are good for a company like ADA. But the company has already supplied more than 60 power plants. It is now selling its “scrubbers” in China, where controls on poisonous coal emissions are urgently needed. Those controls will benefit us as well; mercury emissions from China, to which the U.S. is exporting an increasing amount of coal, have drifted across the globe and been measured in air over North America.

So: we know that mercury and other air toxins can be controlled. We know it can be done with American know-how, and American-made technology. We know it is cost effective. We know that we can open up international markets with our technology. We know the new standards will save lives, and protect children’s health, all thanks to the EPA. What we don’t know can hurt us. I, for one, don’t know what to make of the mercurial sensibilities of polluters who seem not to care about human health or a vibrant, 21st century economy. Here’s hoping that job-creating regulation stands strong.