On Mercury Poisoning

It’s impossible to guess what little news item will catch the attention of Scott Milfred, Editorial Page Editor. Today — out of the blue — it’s mercury in the lakes

Being as how it’s a poison, Scott’s against it. But being as how reducing it might anger coal-fired electricity producers, Scott’s for a cautious, go-slow approach. At least that’s what we got from reading today’s editorial. It made us disappointed, angry and yet sleepy!  All at the same time! Read it yourself; see what it does for you.

The problem with mercury is well-known. It’s poison to the nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. It’s especially bad for developing fetuses, poison to learning and intelligence and motor skills.

Now some baseline amount of mercury is always present in the environment — put there, depending on your way of thinking, by an omnipotent, loving God or an indifferent, uncaring Nature. In either case we could reasonably well live with that amount of mercury. But a lot of additional mercury floats out of smokestacks day and night at coal-fired electricity plants and eventually lands in our water.  Bacteria turn it into an organic form, methylmercury, and then fish eat it and concentrate it.  States warn us not to eat too much fish.  Pregnant women are warned especially. For pregnant ladies it’s literally just like smoking and drinking. Still, every single year an estimated 60,000 babies are born with some sort of impairment due to mercury.  (Just in America.)

In the 90’s the Clinton administration put forward new power plant rules requiring mercury controls. But before those rules could take effect, George Bush the Younger took office, and he put those rules on hold, because he (like Scott Milfred today) wanted to consider both angles (You may remember — there were never more than two sides to an issue in the mind of Mr. Bush).

On the one side there were the little kids. Being little kids, they couldn’t vote or seriously contribute to the civic dialogue, but they did have parents. There were millions of parents who didn’t want their children to be harmed (definitely a significant interest group). There were also the grandparents, who, we can be sure, felt equally strongly. There were the aunts and uncles, all the relatives, all the people who had a beating heart in their breasts.  All of these people would’ve strongly, instinctively, gotten behind the idea of paying a few more cents for electricity and having thousands of healthier babies.

On the other side there were the coal-fired electric utility executives (and their investors) who might’ve been concerned that their coal-fired plants, by costing slightly more, could lose some economic advantage against other sources of electricity.

What a dilemma! America could let the price of electricity go up a few cents, but in return, each year, something on the order of 60,000 new American citizens would arrive without brain damage, motor impairments, and various other debilitations. But what about those coal-fired electricity-plant executives? Imagine yourself as President ten years ago, or for that matter, as today’s Editorial Page Editor, pacing your office, weighing this weighty, weighty question. 5 seconds? 10 seconds? 20 seconds? Hm, let’s see… sixty thousand children (per year) versus coal profits… what to do, what to do…?!?