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NEWS RELEASE For Immediate Release: March 31, 1999
CONTACT: Jane Williams, Mercury Policy Project, 206-782-6009
Michael Bender, Mercury Policy Project, 802-223-9000
Eric Uram, Sierra Club, 608-257-4994 ext. 11
Marti Sinclair, Sierra Club, 513-674-1983
Shalala Ignores Bipartisan Congressional Pleas, Moves to Gut Mercury
Standards: Action Places Fish Consumption Advisories at Risk in Many States
Washington, DC- Despite pleas from a bi-partisan group of Senators and
Congressman, a federal health agency is set to release a drastically weaker
standard for mercury next week. The standard would infer that consuming 4-5
times the levels of mercury in fish as the current Environmental Protection
Agency's (EPA's) standard would not be harmful.
Senators Leahy, Jeffords, Wellstone, Boxer, and Congressman Allen and Pallone
all have sent letters requesting that Health and Human Services Secretary
Donna Shalala delay the premature release of the Agency of Toxic Substances
Disease Registry's (ATSDR's) Toxicological Profile for Mercury. They want the
Profile delayed until after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on
mercury exposures is completed next year. They expressed concern that the
release of ATSDR's weaker standard would confuse the public, downplay EPA's
more precautionary approach, and could gut important public health standards
designed to protect pregnant women, the unborn and children from mercury
"ATSDR is doing downfield blocking on the mercury issue for special interest
groups," said Michael Bender of the Montpelier, VT-based Mercury Policy
Project. "They are placing the health of America's children and future
generations at risk to protect coal-fired power plants, medical and municipal
waste incinerators, and the fishing industry."
The debate over the toxicity of mercury has been complicated by the release of
two studies, the Faroe Island and Seychelles Island studies, both which
examined the impact of mercury exposure to the developing brain in the fetus
and in young children. The Faroe Island study found effects at very low
levels of mercury consumption, while the Seychelles Islands study found an
effect in young children which appeared to rectify itself as the children
aged. Congress passed a law last year to forestall any new regulations on
mercury until the NAS examined competing studies on mercury toxicity.
Powerful industries are upset about the controversy over mercury's toxicity
and the potential for new regulations. Mercury emitting industries (coal-fired
power plants, waste incinerators, industries that use boilers and industrial
furnaces fired with coal, and the chlor-alkali industry) are concerned that
mercury contamination will lead to a regulatory crackdown by EPA on their
emissions. The commercial fishing industry is concerned that the public will
be warned by federal agencies not to consume mercury-tainted fish. Both
industries have used their political clout first to delay the release for
three years of the Mercury Study Report to Congress and when that failed, to
have ATSDR intervene and release the toxicological profile challenging EPA's
assessment of mercury's toxicity.
Exposure to mercury causes developmental defects in children and
Parkinsonian-like effects in adults. Memory, higher cognitive functions,
attention, and comprehension are all damaged by childhood mercury exposure.
In adults, problems with fine motor movements is the first overt effect, with
palsy, attention deficit, and dementia occurring at higher mercury exposures.
The Wellstone Letter:
March 26, 1999
Honorable Donna Shalala
Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Ave.
Washington, DC 20201
Dear Secretary Shalala:
I am writing to you to express my very serious concern about the decision that
the Department of Health and Human Services is about to finalize on a standard
for mercury that is not protective of human health or the environment. I am
calling on you to intervene and delay this dangerous decision until the
congressionally-mandate National Academy of Science study on mercury exposures
is completed next year.
The Department of Health and Human Services is on the verge of making a
serious scientific and public policy error concerning the human health impacts
of mercury poisonings. Congress has commissioned a study by the National
Academy of Sciences on this very issue. Despite this, the Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry is preparing to release a "Toxicological
Profile" for mercury. The release of the profile at this time is of great
concern to the people in the Great Lakes who believe the health and safety of
their children and themselves are being sacrificed.
I am not alone in describing as 'dangerous' the process by which this exposure
level has been set, and also to describe the public health and environmental
ramifications if this level is officially adopted by your agency. In February
of 1998, three Minnesota agencies, the Department of Health, the Department of
Natural Resources, and the Pollution Control Agency sent you a nearly
unprecedented joint letter opposing the basis of the standard, the process by
which it was set, and the standard itself. I know that health and
environmental professionals from many other states and other organizations
have also clearly communicated to ATSDR their opposition to this.
I urge you to not commit the serious mistake of adopting this standard.
Currently, there is tremendous disagreement in the federal agencies and the
scientific community over ATSDR's standard and the methodology used to derive
it. A dramatic and abrupt increase in the official federal "Safe Level" of
exposure for mercury is a very dangerous move-- in terms of science, policy,
and the protection of public and environmental health--and simply sends the
wrong message to the public and to the polluters that mercury is not a
For centuries, mercury's toxicity has been well known, and over the past 3
decades we have dramatically increased our understanding of how this extremely
potent neurotoxin behaves in the environment and how it works in very subtle
ways to permanently damage fetuses and young children. Mercury is almost
unique among the natural elements in its properties as a persistent
bioaccumulative toxic material and we have learned that there is probably no
safe level in the environment, since mercury can so readily reconcentrate in
the aquatic food chain, which inevitably leads to human and wildlife exposure.
Because of its ability to bioaccumulate in fish, mercury contamination is an
environmental justice issue. Subsistence fishers, Native Nations, and
minorities engaging in fish-based cultures and life ways will have a higher
exposure to mercury through fish consumption. As well, women of childbearing
years, young children and the unborn are at risk because of the vulnerability
of the developing brain to mercury's toxicity. The effects suffered by these
sensitive populations to mercury exposure are irreversible and irreparable.
The impacts of mercury emissions on the environment and human health cannot be
repaired and take decades to attenuate in the environment.
Mercury released into the air because of government policies that are not
protective of public health are an attack on this and future generations.
This is why we must do everything possible to cease mercury emissions and
adopt a reference dose that is protective of the most vulnerable among us,
including sensitive populations, Native Americans and other minorities who
subsist on fish. If we are to be fully protective with our children's health,
let us adhere to the precautionary principle and err on the side of caution.
Clearly, no harm will result from a decision to wait for a greater scientific
consensus to emerge on such a serious decision that may have repercussions for
generations to come--yet considerable confusion and conflict will result from
the premature release of ATSDR's mercury standard. I hope that you will
review this situation carefully and consider postponing the release of the
ATSDR profile for mercury. Instead, the views and information of ATSDR should
be provided to the NAS for consideration in its study.
Thank you for your consideration of my request. Please feel free to contact
Kelly Ross of my staff if you need additional information.
Paul David Wellstone
United States Senator
cc: Jeffrey P. Koplan
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
William Raub, Science Policy Advisor
Department of Health and Human Services
Honorable George Frampton, Chairman
Council on Environmental Quality
Honorable Carol M. Browner, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
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