WHEN GREENPEACE USA RELEASED the interim results of its National Mercury Testing Project last week, two ironies jumped out: One is that the same administration that conferred legal rights on the unborn fetus has so far refused to regulate emissions of a toxin known to damage fetal brains in the womb. The other is that while California’s clean-air laws keep coal-fired power plants outside the state’s borders, its residents have not escaped coal’s toxic effects, which drift to us all the way from China. You might say the tuna have come home to roost.

Since May of 2004, more than 6,000 people have submitted snips of hair to Greenpeace for testing at the University of North Carolina–Asheville’s Environmental Quality Institute. As self-selected participants, they do not constitute a representative sample. They likely mirror the environmental movement in race (white), income (middle-class) and dietary habits (less red meat, less fat). But the interim results of the study, which Greenpeace released February 8, may still jar Californians who pride themselves on healthy living: Nearly a third of the state’s roughly 1,100 participants showed mercury levels over one part per million — the level the EPA considers the upper limit for women of childbearing age. In the Los Angeles–Long Beach metropolitan area, the numbers came out even worse: Over half — 52 percent — of the women in their reproductive years who chose to be tested had levels high enough to cause damage to the brain of a developing fetus.

“It’s all that fish Californians eat,” says Casey Harrell, an energy and toxics campaigner for Greenpeace. “It’s not only just the fish, but it’s the type of fish.” Sushi eaters, says Harrell, tend to eat more of the high-end predator fish, such as tuna, swordfish and shark; women, preoccupied with weight, tend to eat even more of it. Those “high-end predator fish,” Harrell says, “are just chock-full of mercury. In California’s urban areas, where they eat a ton of these high-end fish, it’s no surprise they’re testing off the charts.”

Mercury can also enter the body through the lungs, which might be why seven of the 13 reproductive-age women tested in Tampa, Florida, near the four coal-fired generators of the Crystal River energy complex, had elevated mercury levels. It also finds its way into our waterways and bloodstreams from dental work: Despite a growing minority of dentists who scorn the toxic metal, cheap, fast fillings still require 34 tons of mercury a year. But it’s fish consumption that accounts for the regional differences. One woman in New York learned she had mercury levels over 30 times the safe limit. “She ate a ton of tunafish,” says Harrell.

“At that level, you start to feel it,” says Harrell. “Some of the symptoms are listlessness, difficulty concentrating and nausea.” But in a woman’s body, it takes a much smaller concentration — think of a credit card dropped on a football field — to cause everything from depressed IQ scores to autism in her child. In the infamous town of Minamata, Japan, where a plastics factory once dumped large amounts of mercury into the sea for more than three decades ending in the late 1960s, a disproportionate number of women gave birth to babies with cerebral palsy, even though the women showed no signs of poisoning at all.

THE U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY has been so loath to establish strict mercury-emissions standards that it has put off enacting any mercury rule until 2010, and even by 2018 only proposes cutting domestic mercury emissions by 70 percent. When the rule came out last year, EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley declared it “compromised,” meaning industry had a hand in crafting it, and claimed the EPA had failed to consider the effect on children’s health. (Tinsley resigned last month — just a year after she criticized the mercury rule.) Now the EPA is telling the public that domestic sources aren’t really the problem, anyway. EPA administrator Stephen Johnson often says that 80 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. comes from foreign waters, and that U.S. utilities contribute only 48 tons of mercury per year to an overall global load of some 5,000 tons a year. Blame Asia, they say: China draws three-fourths of its power from coal-fired plants.

The blame game ignores the power of the U.S. to reduce global pollution, says Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project, a nonprofit based in Montpelier, Vermont, devoted to promoting policies that reduce mercury in the environment. “The U.S. is the bully on the block,” he says. “If the U.S. adopts more stringent standards, you’ll see banks making investments in better emissions-control technology. And as the technology advances, it becomes more cost-effective. Business becomes more competitive, so you have competition among vendors. That would be instrumental in paving the way for the international community to adopt better emissions-control technology.”

Instead of leading the charge, as it did under Reagan when the Montreal Protocol banned ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons in 1987, the United States has behaved just as it has on Kyoto, twice blocking the European Union’s efforts to draw up a binding international treaty to curb mercury emissions. When the biannual meeting of the United Nations Environmental Program convenes again next year in Nairobi, Kenya, the U.S. “will certainly block the same treaty again,” says Bender. “Their stance hasn’t changed on the issue.”

Meanwhile, Chinese coal-fired power generation and its attendant pollution are “going to come at us like a freight train coming down the tunnel,” he adds. “And at the end of the day, we’re going to have more and more pollution because of the lack of international leadership and follow-through. The Bush administration has that blood on its hands.”

Bender worries about the long-term public-health consequences of mercury pollution. “If it continues unabated, we’ll see more developmental delays in babies born every year,” he says. “It’s nothing less than the dumbing down of the population.” The accumulated strain on social services could be staggering: One study out of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York last spring estimated the national cost of fetal mercury poisoning, measured in loss of productivity, at $8.7 billion annually.

Lacking federal leadership, states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut have passed their own mercury rules, and California has joined 13 states in a lawsuit demanding that the Bush administration support steeper mercury regulations. Another lawsuit has been brought by a coalition of environmental and public-health groups. “They’re going to win,” says Harrell. “But it’s going to take a decade. And in that time, how many more tons of mercury are going to come into the environment?”

For $25, you, too, can find out if you should give up tunafish sandwiches: To order a testing kit, visit https://secureusa.greenpeace.org/mercury. And for a guide to safe sushi, see www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/sushi.asp.

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