Women and children protest mercury pollution

(WOMENSENEWS)–Stacey Reynolds thought she was eating right for her baby’s health.

During her pregnancy last year, the Arlington, Va., legal assistant made sure to get a nutritious, well-balanced diet, including plenty of protein-rich swordfish.

After reading about toxic mercury in fish, Reynolds trooped to her doctor for precautionary testing and discovered she was among the 1-in-6 U.S. women of childbearing age with dangerous levels of mercury in her blood.

"My level was three times the safety limit and at the point where it could affect my baby’s IQ," says Reynolds. "Though it has since dropped below the recommended limit, I’m furious that the government doesn’t require warning labels on fish that could be tainted. And I’m worried that my daughter might develop learning disabilities and other health problems linked to mercury exposure."

Reynolds is lobbying for warning labels on freshwater fish and encouraging women to use an online "Got Mercury?" calculator to assess their own exposure levels.

Like a growing number of female activists who say the government’s mercury strictures are insufficient, Reynolds is campaigning to get this pollutant out of food, medical devices and power plant emissions.

Today, as America celebrates Earth Day, these activists have mercury on their minds. Some, like the Washington-based Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, are also taking targeted action. In conjunction with the Chicago-based American Hospital Association, this female-staffed organization is today surveying 6,000 hospitals to monitor their progress in eliminating mercury from medical equipment.

Mercury Harms Women, Children

A silver metal that is liquid at room temperature and evaporates around 200 degrees, mercury can accumulate in human tissue and interfere with metabolic functioning.

In women, mercury can contaminate breast milk and damage the brain, spinal cord, kidney, liver and heart. It may also contribute to multiple sclerosis, infertility, breast cancer, and fibromyalgia (widespread aching, stiffness and fatigue).

In children exposed to mercury in the womb, the toxin can cause some of these same problems as well as autism, attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy and learning disabilities.

Mercury stubbornly adheres to fat. Because women carry 10 percent more body fat than men, this makes them more prone to mercury poisoning. Because children’s neurological systems are still developing, they are also at increased risk.

In 2002, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1-in-6 U.S. women of reproductive age has a blood mercury level that could pose a risk to her developing fetus. This means 630,000 of the 4 million babies born in the United States each year may be threatened by mercury exposure in utero.

Other research shows that in some parts of the country, the problem may be even worse. In 2003, Dr. Jane Hightower of San Francisco’s California Pacific Medical Center measured the mercury in her female patients’ blood and found the average level was 10 times higher than the CDC’s average reading. The level for some children was 40 times higher.

Activists Say Limits Insufficient

In response to these findings, the Food and Drug Administration recommended last year that children and pregnant and nursing women eat no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna (which has a high risk of mercury contamination) per week.

Authorities also recommend avoiding shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel and other large species that are at the top of the food chain and likely to be tainted with mercury from eating smaller fish in polluted streams, lakes and rivers.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency stiffened its rules on mercury, mandating that coal-fired power plants–the largest U.S. source of mercury emissions–reduce these emissions by 60 percent in 28 states over the next decade.

Environmentalists’ concerns on the government’s pollution or dietary warnings, however, were not assuaged.

"The Bush administration is heading in the wrong direction on both these fronts," says Jane Houlihan of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.

Last month, Houlihan’s group filed an appeal with the FDA, based in Rockville, Md., demanding that the agency dramatically reduce its "safe" levels of consumption for mercury-affected fish and add albacore tuna to the do not eat list.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, have also been blasting the EPA’s March 2005 plan to allow power companies to buy pollution credits instead of reducing emission levels. If polluters are allowed to pay for the right to pollute, they say, mercury pollution will only worsen in the short term. They are contesting the regulations in federal courts in 11 states.

Plans to build 100 new coal-fired power plants are under consideration across the United States. Environmentalists say these plants, now clustered in Ohio and Pennsylvania, are raising mercury levels in the Midwest and in the mid-Atlantic states downwind.

Women Lead Anti-Mercury Efforts

Many women are leading the fight against mercury pollution and activists say this is natural because of the issue’s particular urgency for women.

mercury pollution protest

In Congress, Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are fighting to toughen EPA rules. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has introduced legislation urging the Bush administration to support an international treaty to reduce mercury use.

At the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, project manager Toni Flora is leading a campaign to get mercury safely removed from junked cars. From 1974 to 2003, auto makers used mercury in anti-lock brakes and light switches in hoods. Though these products have since been phased out, nearly 20,000 pounds of mercury are released into the environment when old cars and trucks are scrapped each year.

At Health Care Without Harm, based in Arlington, Va., co-founder Charlotte Brody is spearheading efforts to phase out thermometers, blood pressure machines and other medical equipment that contain mercury and can be replaced with safer alternatives. More than 1,400 health care facilities have joined this campaign and pledged to eliminate mercury from medical waste by the end of this year.

Across the country, female activists at smaller, grassroots organizations are also crusading for a clean-up.

Martha Hamblin of GASP for Clean Air, based in Haw River, N.C., is demanding that two local incinerators reduce mercury smoke that is now 13 times the legal limit.

Sandra Duffy of Mothers Against Mercury Amalgam, based in Portland, Ore., is urging dentists to treat cavities with mercury-free fillings and to recycle the mercury that they remove from old fillings.

Julie Becker and Teresa Mendez-Quigley of the Women’s Health and Environmental Network, Harrisburg, Pa., have organized exchanges in which residents swapped 15,000 mercury fever thermometers for free digital ones. Studies show that each one of these thermometers contains enough mercury to render all the fish in a 20-acre lake inedible.

Mounting evidence shows these women all have their work cut out for them.

To date, 48 states have issued fishing advisories on mercury. In August 2004, the EPA announced that fish in virtually all U.S. lakes and rivers are contaminated.

Last month, a study in the journal Ecotoxicology, based in Boston, found high mercury levels in songbirds, salamanders and other New England wildlife previously believed to be unaffected.

Women bear the brunt of environmental toxins, and their health problems linked to the environment cost $12.2 billion per year, according to a 2003 report by the San Francisco-based Women’s Foundation of California.

"Women are at the front lines of this battle, as are the children we bear," says Felice Stadler of the Mercury Policy Project in Montpelier, Vt. "But this is a fight we can win if we just use the technology we have and if we hold our elected leaders responsible."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.



For more information:

Got Mercury? "Mercury Calculator":

Mercury Policy Project: