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The Failure of Chemical Regulations: The Case of Mercury

The Failure Of Chemical Regulations:The Case Of Mercury Print E-mail

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #840,
Feb. 2, 2006
By Peter Montague

Mercury pollution offers us a well-lit window into the failed system of chemical regulation in the U.S.

Mercury was discovered harming humans in Japan starting in 1953 – 53 years ago. Hundreds of people were affected by severe brain damage, blindness, and horrendous birth defects -- all from eating fish heavily contaminated with mercury dumped into Minimata Bay by the Chisso Corporation. Birds and cats were afflicted with the same symptoms.

Ten years later, researchers in Sweden were systematically scouring the countryside, finding dead birds with elevated mercury in their blood. This time the culprit was seeds treated with mercury-containing fungicides. In 1966 Swedish researchers held a conference in Stockholm to present their findings and issue warnings -- mercury levels in the environment were rising ominously, partly because of the use of mercury in pesticides, and partly for reasons unknown. The U.S. government sent representatives to the Stockholm conference, but they returned home without making a peep.

In 1969, Environment magazine told the story of mercury in Japan and Sweden and openly speculated that mercury would be found throughout the environment of the U.S. if anyone took the time to look for it. No one did.

Then in February 1970, the Huckleby family in Alamogordo, New Mexico was poisoned by a batch of mercury-treated seed that they had fed to their hogs, which provided the family's ham and bacon. Three Huckleby children were severely injured -- one deafened, another was blinded, a third arriving at the hospital raving mad. The story made national news and within 24 hours the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wrapped up "10 years" of research on the dangers of mercury and declared mercury-containing pesticides an "imminent hazard." Within days USDA canceled the registration of mercury-containing pesticides and demanded that the manufacturer recall the product from store shelves.

A month later, Norvald Fimreite -- a graduate student at Western Ontario University -- revealed that fish in many lakes along the U.S.- Canada border were contaminated with mercury at high levels (7 parts per million, for example). Ohio closed its portion of Lake Erie to commercial fishing. On June 18, 1970 Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel declared mercury "an intolerable threat to the health and safety of the American people" -- a statement so true and bold that it remains the quintessential summary of the mercury problem 35 years later.

Later that same year, 1970, a public interest research organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico -- Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) -- arranged to take samples from the stack gases emitted from the Four Corners coal-burning power plant and analyze them for mercury. SRIC's staff scientist, Charles Hyder, was convinced that burning coal was the major source of mercury in the natural environment. The Four Corners tests proved him right. The Associated Press reported the results -- that burning coal releases enormous quantities of mercury -- but no one with any authority raised an
eyebrow, much less a finger. (Disclosure: I worked with Hyder on that project.)

Meanwhile, Norvald Fimreite's lonely work around the Great Lakes had aroused the world. Researchers began looking for mercury in fish everywhere. Soon everyone knew that big fish -- fresh and saltwater, both -- contain dangerous amounts of mercury: big walleye, big swordfish, big tuna, big grouper, and big pike. Obviously, mercury was concentrating as it moved up the food chain. People began to realize that at the top of the food web you find big bears, large birds, and humans.

Soon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established an "interim" standard, setting 0.5 parts per million (ppm) as the maximum allowable concentration for mercury in fish. It seemed as if science and good sense had prevailed to protect the public.

But then the U.S. regulatory system began to work just as it was designed to: in 1977, the nation's swordfish distributors took the FDA to court, demanding that FDA stop seizing swordfish that exceeded the 0.5 ppm limit. The trial lasted four days and when it was over a federal judge had effectively doubled the nation's allowable limit on mercury in fish, to 1.0 ppm.

Instead of building a scientific and precautionary case to protect the public, to prevent harm, the FDA caved in to the food distribution industry. In 1979, the FDA announced in the Federal Register that it was formally adopting 1.0 ppm as the new standard for mercury in fish, based in new data provided by the Commerce Department, showing that Americans didn't eat as much fish as the FDA had thought.

Relaxing the acceptable level of mercury in fish, the Commerce Department said (and the FDA repeated), would "provide a significant economic benefit to those industries most seriously affected" by the more stringent limit and "enhance the future development of a number of presently underutilized fisheries." Moreover, Commerce and FDA said, a less restrictive rule "would significantly increase consumer confidence in seafood."

As the public grew more health-conscious, the consumption of seafood steadily rose, and the FDA turned a blind eye to questions of safety. The FDA essentially went to sleep for 12 years until a report from the National Academy of Sciences embarrassed it again in 1991. At that point FDA began testing fish to see how much mercury they contained, and the agency repeatedly promised to revisit its 1.0 ppm limit on mercury in fish, but it never actually got around to it. That 1979 limit still holds today…

To read the full article go to: http://www.organicconsumers.org/Politics/rachels060208.cfm#the

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