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Monday, September 05, 2005

Mercury pollution a threat to kids' ability to learn

By Pedro Jose Greer
Knight Ridder Tribune

As another school year gets under way, many parents are focused on how well their kids are being prepared to compete in the global marketplace.

For the generation of students being born today, there's a new threat in their mother's milk - mercury pollution that could affect their ability to learn for years to come.

The Environmental Protection Agency, despite its stated mission to protect public health and the natural environment, is failing these young Americans.

The agency's bureaucrats, many of them former energy industry executives, have written a regulation that delays the reduction of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, the chief source of this potent neurotoxicant.

Too much mercury can cause health problems for anyone. But because young brains are exquisitely sensitive to their environment, this pollutant can cause irreparable harm, including a lowered IQ, learning disabilities and developmental delays.

The EPA's new mercury rule delays by at least 10 to 15 years protections from increased mercury emissions, which end up in rivers and oceans, fish and ultimately humans. It is too weak and does too little, too late to protect the next generation of students from the harmful health effects of mercury.

Members of the U.S. Senate will vote this fall on whether or not this rule does enough to protect the neurological health of our young children. They are expected to debate and vote on whether the energy industry's interests trump the need to protect the public interest, namely the next two generations of American workers.

Using national blood mercury prevalence data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found that between 316,588 and 637,233 children each year have cord blood mercury levels greater than 5.8 ug/L, a level associated with the loss of IQ.

This damage to our nation's "intellectual capital" will be costly. It will cause diminished economic productivity over the working lives of these children, which researchers at the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine estimate will cost us $8.7 billion annually. Of this annual amount, they estimate that $1.3 billion is linked to mercury emissions from American power plants.

Even those who embrace a self-policing, cost-benefit, small government approach for energy utilities should recognize that strengthening regulation of power plant sources to reduce mercury exposure is a no-brainer.

Our kids deserve nothing less.

Dr. Pedro Jose Greer is a MacArthur "Genius" grant winner and founder of various clinics for the homeless and poor in Miami. He wrote this for Physicians for Social Responsibility, which works to eliminate nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, to achieve a sustainable environment, and to reduce violence and its causes. Readers may write to him in care of PSR, 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 1012, Washington, D.C. 20009; Web site: www.psr.org.

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