From: Associated Press
Published July 11, 2000 12:00 AM

EPA regulations on Mercury backed

Removing a key obstacle to Environmental Protection Agency plans to regulate mercury from power plants, a panel of scientists has concluded that the agency was justified in setting stringent levels of protection from the toxic substance.


The findings by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences is to be released in a report today. It concludes an 18-month review of the science used by the EPA in establishing new guidelines for protecting the public from mercury contamination.


The EPA's plans to regulate mercury emissions has been held up for nearly two years because Congress barred the agency from proceeding until the study was completed.


The 10-member panel in its report concludes that methyl-mercury "is widespread and persistent in the environment" and that the guidelines used by the EPA to establish maximum exposure levels are "scientifically justifiable ... for the protection of public health."


A copy of the executive summary of the report was obtained by The Associated Press from sources familiar with its findings.


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While the panel concludes that most Americans face a very low risk, children of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood during pregnancy face a much higher risk. It estimates as many as 60,000 children annually may develop neurological problems, including learning disabilities, because of low-level mercury contamination through their mother prior to birth.


While much remains to be learned about low-dose mercury contamination and human health, the study says there is strong evidence to link mercury exposure to neurological problems, including learning disabilities, as well as immune system and cardiological problems.


The largest sources of mercury, about 40 tons annually, comes from coal burning electric power plants. The EPA has sought to develop standards for regulating these emissions, which often find their way into lakes and streams and onto pastureland, and eventually into the food chain, especially in fish.


But Congress in late 1998 barred the EPA from spending money on any further development of the mercury regulations, pending a review by the National Academy of Sciences of "gaps in the scientific data" used by the EPA in determining mercury's toxicity and potential risk to the public.


Of particular concern were conflicting studies relied upon by the EPA — one on the health impact of low-level mercury exposure to children in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, and the other in the Faroe Islands off Scotland.


The Faroe study found adverse developmental effects among children whose mothers, while pregnant, were exposed to relatively low levels of mercury in fish. But the Seychelles study found no discernible link.


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