Mercury – from coal to brains
20 May 2019. Mercury – in the form of methylmercury – is an established brain drainer of global impact. The most recent estimate indicates that 250,000 IQ points are lost every year in the U.S. due to mercury from contaminated fish and seafood. In 2009, the United Nations member states agreed to control and minimize the pollution with this hazardous metal. The agreement was named the Minamata Convention from the Japanese fishing town where methylmercury poisoned thousands of people and caused serious damage to children’s brains. The United States was the first country to ratify the convention and soon announced plans to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants – the largest source of pollution in the U.S. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes to weaken the legislation in support of the coal industry and outdated power plants. Mercury researchers have objected vigorously, as seen in this letter: EPA’s proposal is arbitrary and capricious, and it is inconsistent with scientific knowledge. Now, EPA has announced that it will re-evaluate the risk assessment for mercury. That is certainly overdue, as the current exposure limit – called the reference dose – was established in 2001 and has been criticized for not being protective. In a letter, researchers advise EPA to conduct a thorough and conscientious assessment and consider the dozen recent studies on adverse effects on children’s brain development. In addition, some common mutations can make children highly vulnerable, and the mercury limit therefore needs to be lowered for protection. While methylmercury mostly comes from fish consumption, the purpose is not to limit seafood intake but to obtain the essential nutrients from the bottom of the food chain, where there is less mercury accumulation. Otherwise, the mercury may just eliminate the benefits from a healthy diet that includes fish. Given EPA’s proposal to allow increased mercury pollution from coal burning, revision of the exposure limit may not be happening at an ideal time. Once again, the question emerges – will short-term gains undermine the science and the protection of the brains of the future?