Later this month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will announce guidelines that are intended to reduce 90 percent of the airborne mercury released by coal-burning power plants.
For many years, Maine rivers and lakes have been “at the end of the tailpipe,” receiving countless tons of this highly toxic element, which is precipitated by rain and ends up in our fish and other wildlife.
State toxicologists and public health officials issued the first warnings more than 15 years ago that pregnant and nursing women in particular should strictly limit their intake of Maine fish.
We know the disastrous consequences of high dose mercury poisoning. A notorious industrial spill into Minimata Bay in Japan in 1956 left hundreds of people dead and many more with damage to multiple organ systems.
Heavily contaminated grain consumed in Iraq in the 1960s also killed and injured many.
We also know that chronic low levels of exposure to mercury can have insidious toxicity.
As a child psychiatrist and grandfather of seven, I continue to be concerned about neurological and psychological effects such as learning disabilities, attention and concentration problems, mental retardation or even serious developmental delays that can compromise our kids’ futures. Ask any parent or teacher of a child who has these problems or any adult who has struggled growing up with this type of persisting handicap.
One study of nearly 1,000 children in the Faroe Islands, where fish constitutes a major part of folks’ diet, showed a direct correlation between high maternal mercury ingestion and incidence of these problems in offspring.
Levels of lead ingestion once considered safe by public health authorities have been reduced steadily as research has proven that ingesting or absorbing even small amounts can harm children and infants.
We see the same trend with mercury. Particularly when rapid early brain development is occurring in utero, elements such as lead and mercury may play disproportionately destructive roles.
With a tidal wave of obesity threatening our population with epidemic diabetes and cardiovascular disease, eating fish is rightly encouraged because it has fewer calories, less bad trans fats and more omega 3 good fats. Ironically, however, many oily fish at the top of the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish, have the highest concentrations of mercury, and carry the strongest warnings to limit their consumption.
Earlier this year, concerned Maine citizens fought hard to assure that biphenol-A would remain on the list of known toxic chemicals that should not be allowed in toys and the rest of the environment.
Mercury and lead are older enemy agents, but we should continue to be vigilant about protecting ourselves and our children and grandchildren from the dangers they pose.
We should let our senators and representatives know that we support EPA actions to clean up our air and water.
James H. Maier, M.D., Scarborough, is a member of the national and Maine chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Public Health Committee of the Maine Medical Association.