A guest post from mwmwm … Want to talk about “clean coal“?
The USGS released a recently released an underreported report that is quite stunning in its implications.
The major findings from USGS Mercury in Stream Ecosystem studies of 291 stream systems across the US are that methymercury (the form easiest for aquatic life to acquire and concentrate) is pretty much everywhere, even in pristine areas. Every stream, every fish, every watershed.
The culprit? Atmospheric mercury.
The cause? Coal plants and other industry spewing mercury and other heavy metals into the air, which dissolves in slightly acidic wetlands and forests into methylmercury.
The problem? Methylmercury is not only very toxic, it probably makes us stupid.
Methylmercury is an accumulative neurotoxin. That means it’s really bad for the brain, and doesn’t leave the body.
MeHg is highly toxic. Exposure to MeHg can result in adverse effects in several organ systems throughout the life span of humans and animals. There are extensive data on the effects of MeHg on the development of the brain (neurodevelopmental effects) in humans and animals…. Chronic, low-dose prenatal MeHg exposure from maternal consumption of fish has been associated with more subtle end points of neurotoxicity in children. Those end points include poor performance on neurobehavioral tests, particularly on tests of attention, fine-motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities (e.g., drawing), and verbal memory. (Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury, National Academy of Sciences)
Methylmercury is bioaccumulative. It is “biomagnified” by the food chain. That means that when algae absorb it, it gets passed on and retained by invertebrates that eat the algae, then passed on and retained by the fish that eat the invertebrates, then passed on and retained by the creatures (like humans, but also otters, birds, predator fish, and more) that eat the fish. And it builds up in our bodies and brains just like it does in fish.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that is present in fish across the globe at levels that threaten human and wildlife health. In the US, 48 of 50 States have fish consumption advisories for mercury (http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/advisories/) — from the USGS handout (PDF).
How did we get here? Coal-powered power plants produce 40% of mercury emissions, the largest single source; an Alabama coal plant released nearly a ton of mercury into the atmosphere in 2007, with another fifty coal plants producing another twenty tons. (Mercury Pollution Rising)
“There are no experts who deny that mercury emissions are causing some damage to developing brains and causing drops in IQ… Furthermore, recent research has specifically documented the type of damage that low levels of mercury exposure cause to developing neurons. This damage occurs even at levels of mercury exposure that would be unlikely to cause harm in an adult; but at levels that a significant portion of the child-bearing population have circulating in their bodies.”(Mercury Pollution Rising)
Some have argued that the Roman Empire fell because of the elite’s use of lead pipes, lead-lined urns for wine, and the consequent rise in mad-hatter neurological problems — lead also makes us stupid, you see.
So here we are, merrily pumping mercury (and other heavy metals) into our atmosphere, which deposits on wetland and forest watersheds that are slightly acidic, which produces easily-ingested methylmercury, which moves up the food chain, causing damage to all brain-driven critters including ourselves.
At what point do we wake up and say, “wait a minute, we’re toxifying our children and our future” and start mobilizing for rapid change away from coal, away from toxicity, away from unregulated saturation via industrial waste?
Or have we already made ourselves too stupid to wake up?