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After decades of warnings and pollution controls, newborns arrive with a burden of mercury

The fashion nowadays is to question how much more regulation we really need after all the cleanup that’s been done under the landmark laws of the early 1970s, but much work remains.

One in 10 babies born on Minnesota's North Shore has an unhealthy level of mercury.
© Lucas Jackson / Reuters

I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management. — E.B. White, “Sootfall and Fallout,” 1956.

The news that one newborn in 10 along Minnesota’s North Shore enters this world with an unhealthy burden of mercury is — well, is what?

Unsurprising, certainly, given the well-known persistence and pervasiveness of this environmental poison. Appalling? Disgusting? Infuriating?

All of those, but heartbreaking is the word choice I’ve been trying to improve upon and can’t, quite.

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After 30 years of public-information campaigns, fish-consumption advisories, the posting of warning signs at piers and boat ramps across the Great Lakes region, a better-late-than-never agreement by Minnesota utilities to scrub more mercury out of coal smoke …

After all of that effort and more we have, incredibly, the first scientific effort to measure U.S. newborns’ exposure to a neurological poison that’s especially disruptive to fetal and infant development. And the results are awful:

  • Across the Lake Superior basin, the geographic area selected for the federal/state study, 8 percent of newborns had blood levels of mercury above the EPA level considered unhealthy, according to the Star Tribune.
  • That level is 5.8 micrograms per liter of blood. According to the Duluth News-Tribune, some babies tested as high as 211 micrograms per liter.
  • And the contamination rates were variable as well — 10 percent of Minnesota babies tested above the EPA standard, just 3 percent in Wisconsin, zero in Michigan.
  • Babies born in summer had generally higher levels, almost certainly because their mothers ate more fresh-caught local fish. There are other ways that pregnant women can ingest mercury, but the main source couldn’t be clearer: fish or shellfish from waters tainted by the emissions of coal-burning power plants.

It isn’t clear how much harm or risk is associated with these levels of exposure, but the effects of mercury exposure on fetal and infant development include a wide range of developmental deficits, motor impairments and autoimmune disorders.

Yes, heartbreaking.

The correct amount of poison

The quotation at the top of this post is from an essay E.B. White published in the New Yorker in the autumn of 1956.

It was a presidential election year and nuclear weapons were a campaign issue, both the arms race itself and global contamination with the fallout of aboveground testing. Dr. Willard F. Libby, of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, had estimated the fallout content of earth’s stratosphere at 24 billion tons.

White was worried about the fallout and simultaneously annoyed by the soot and smog blanketing his Manhattan neighborhood; he was fighting off a cold as he wrote and the industrial fumes were making it worse.

The essay that resulted became one of his most famous, and the wry line about his shareholder status is among his most-quoted. Consider it now in context:

I think Man’s gradual, creeping contamination of the planet, his sending up of dust into the air, his strontium additive in our bones, his discharge of industrial poisons into rivers that once flowed clear, his mixing of chemicals with fog on the east wind add up to a fantasy of such grotesque proportions as to make everything said on the subject seem pale and anemic by contrast. I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management.

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Dr. Libby said there is new evidence that the amount of strontium reaching the body from topsoil impregnated by fallout is “considerably less than the seventy per cent of the topsoil concentration originally estimated.” Perhaps we should all feel elated at this, but I don’t. The correct amount of strontium with which to impregnate the topsoil is no strontium. …

I belong to a small, unconventional school that believes that no rat poison is the correct amount to spread in the kitchen where children and puppies can get at it. I believe that no chemical waste is the correct amount to discharge into the fresh rivers of the world, and I believe that if there is a way to trap the fumes from factory chimneys, it should be against the law to set these deadly fumes adrift where they can mingle with fog and, given the right conditions, suddenly turn an area into another Donora, Pa.

White wrote these words before the modern American environmental movement had gathered much steam. “Sootfall and Fallout” is sometimes credited with helping to inspire a new ecological awareness. I think that’s a reach; most of it was about nuclear weapons and the shallowness of presidential politics, and also his musings as he watched a crew of movers unload Mary Martin’s household possessions into an apartment near his own.

But these paragraphs were piercing to me when I first read them in the late 1970s, and I think of them every time some new or revived horror of enviromental irresponsibility comes into the news and makes barely a ripple, as with the mercury study last week.

The art of the palatable

Like everyone else who tries to think carefully about planetary stewardship in complicated times, I need occasional reminding of the clear and simple truths we’ve left so far behind while riding the currents of compromise and consensus, climbing onto our three-legged stools to pick the low-hanging fruit, searching out win-win solutions in hopes of crafting stakeholder agreements so broad that governments need never actually wield the powers we entrust to them.

The fashion nowadays is to question how much more regulation we really need after all the cleanup that’s been done under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and other landmark laws of the early 1970s. And it’s true that we have made great strides.

Perhaps it is now unthinkable that industrial pollution could cause another catastrophe like the Donora Smog of 1948, in which pollution from a steel mill and zinc works killed 70 people. On the other hand, such laws didn’t prevent the wholesale poisoning of Libby, Mont., with asbestos fibers into the 1990s, killing at least 400 with more to come.

Recently, in a conversation among environmental regulators, I heard someone lament the various strictures on his agency and then note that regulation is often described as “the art of the possible.” He was confusing it with diplomacy, which also operates within complex limitations but was able to halt the dusting of our planet with fresh coats of arms-testing fallout, and also to secure a ban on the use of aerosol propellants that were eating away the earth’s protective ozone shield.

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On most days, nowadays, environmental regulation is an exercise in the economically palatable and the politically marketable. Its aim is to see that the costs of reducing pollution are comfortably distributed and that the price of failing to reduce it further is relegated or deferred — for example, to babies not yet born, whose mothers make the mistake of eating too much fish.

I learned from last week’s stories that the unhealthful level of mercury in a newborn’s bloodstream is officially defined as 5.8 micrograms per liter.

This has no bearing whatever on the correct amount, which is zero.