Mercury in the Air

by Dr. Mark Sircus, Ac., OMD, DM (P)
Director International Medical Veritas Association
Doctor of Oriental and Pastoral Medicine

The last thing anyone has wanted to think about is mercury air pollution, but now that the United States government has moved ahead to start control of mercury air emissions from power plants, it is a subject getting attention from the press. Mercury is now on center stage because the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a rule last week to limit mercury emissions from U.S. power plants. On one side it is being hailed as groundbreaking, in that it is one of the first major attempts at controlling mercury emissions. Yet the ruling and the process leading up to its creation has been criticized not only by environmentalists but by the Government Accountability Office and the EPA inspector general. In the choice between families and polluters, President Bush has left every child behind in order to reward industry and campaign contributors.[i]
– Commissioner Bradley Campbell, Department of Environmental Protection (NJ)

Mercury is not an ordinary air pollutant nor is it classified as such. Because it is a neurotoxin that causes neurological problems, it is considered a hazardous air pollutant, which gives it a different legal status. This is a very polite way of saying that mercury is a nerve poison, which even at the lowest concentrations imaginable causes problems for the young. We are only in the beginning phases of becoming aware of the tremendous problem with thousands of tons of mercury being poured into the air each year. If one gram of mercury can pollute a 20-acre lake or kill a child, imagine what 3 billion grams (approximate one year world output of mercury into the air) of it would do.

A fraction of a teaspoon can render all the fish in a 20-acre lake unsafe to eat.

The world is 510 million square kilometers and 71 percent of that is ocean. One gram of mercury poured into eighty million liters of water would be cause for concern under federal human health standards for drinking water, enough to contaminate a typical mid-western lake. Thus one gram pollutes a typical 20 acre lake and 20 acres equals .081 square kilometers. One ton of mercury contains 1 million grams which would thus pollute 81,000 square kilometers of lakes. One thousand tons would pollute 81 million square kilometers, so 7,000 tons of mercury would pollute a lake the size of the world.

The world is not a lake, so the one gram rule does not quite work, but it offers us a good reference point. The oceans are quite deep and the atmosphere also holds a vast capacity to hold mercury, as does the soil. But over the last five hundred years we have dug up and used approximately 1 million tons of mercury.[ii] That is 1,000,000,000,000 grams (a trillion) or enough to blanket each 20 acres on earth with over 149 grams. It is these 149 grams that is responsible for mercury levels increasing by a factor of 20 times over the last 3 centuries. The new standard will not adequately protect Delawareans or the rest of the country from a potent neurotoxin that EPA has determined to be a serious health threat.[iii]Sen. Tom Carper

Quite a bit of the mercury put into the air each year is from this tonnage dug up from the ground, from medical, industrial and municipal incinerators, but about 1,000 tons a year results from the burning of coal to generate electrical power with an overly large share of it coming from China. Thus some have argued that even if all U.S. Power plants were shut down tomorrow Americans are still at risk from mercury that gets carried around the globe in the upper atmospheres.

The United States government’s estimate of the health benefits of reducing mercury emissions vastly understates the total problem because it does not take into account the direct effect of having thousands of tons of nerve poison in the atmosphere that people breathe. The government is not paying attention to the presence of mercury in the water people drink or that it is getting into the soil and thus into our dry foods. If one takes even a curious glance at the above graph we see visually that mercury is a quickly rising tide having in a few short years polluting the majority of our waterways. What doctors and scientists have not seen is that this same process is being repeated on land. From start to finish, with this rule, they have done the industry’s bidding, hidden information from the public and ignored sound science when it suits them.[iv]
– Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT)

Historically, the medical, scientific and governmental regulatory agencies have grossly underestimated the toxicity of mercury and have allowed it into medical and dental products without warning patients of the imminent and inherent dangers. Somehow our most professional people got into their heads that a little bit will not hurt anyone; thinking, mistakenly, that the dose makes the poison. This ‘might’ be true for some substances, but it is a rule that does not work for plutonium and it does not work for mercury. We cannot possibly imagine industry spraying a continent with a ton of plutonium, but we allow thousands of tons of a nerve poison like mercury to be put directly into the air. Who needs an atomic war when we have industry and government teaming up to poison us and our children with nerve poison pumped by the ton into the air we all breathe.

The behavior of mercury in the atmosphere and in the aquatic systems and its effects on human health are of great concern to EPA.[v] Recently researchers from the Northeastern Ecosystem Research Cooperative[vi] have, for the first time, documented elevated mercury levels in non-aquatic and non-fish-eating animals, including songbirds that live in mountaintop forests of the northeastern part of the United States. “Mercury’s reach in our environment is much greater than we ever imagined,” said Felice Stadler of the National Wildlife Federation. The most troubling discovery to researchers was the mercury found in the blood of songbirds. The songbird data show that methylmercury is also forming in drier, forested areas, raising new questions about the extent of environmental damage. The birds exhibited the following problems from non-aquatic environmental exposure to mercury:

Fewer eggs produced, lower reproductive success, offspring less responsive to maternal calls, reduced chick survival, and decreased egg volume, compromised embryonic development, less likely to hunt, seek shade, less time flying, walking or pecking. Exaggerated response to fright stimulus. Brain lesions, spinal cord degeneration, central nervous system dysfunction, tremors, difficulty flying, walking and standing. Inability to coordinate muscle movement, reduced feeding, weight loss and progressive weakness in wings and legs. It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand that what is happening to these songbirds is happening to our children. It seems that mercury is getting into everything and even birds and land animals like us are being blanketed with this nerve poison. The same study found similar problems in Mink and Otters, showing us what is on the way for human beings and their offspring.

There are giant commercial interests that serve the basic needs of modern civilization and they are driving worldwide expansion of coal-burning power stations. The coal industry is planning new plants in , Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico Nevada. Under the Bush plan, many of these plants are likely to buy credits from other plants, meaning that though national emissions might decrease by an estimated 21 percent in five years, local emissions of mercury would increase in several states. For years health advocates have pressured the EPA to set across-the-board pollution controls that, in the view of some scientists, would reduce mercury emissions 90 percent nationwide within three years. Instead, the administration chose a greatly reduced plan that will allow many tons more into the atmosphere. And at one million grams per ton, each ton is significant.

The EPA has not quantified the cardiac costs of mercury air emissions.[vii] Though mercury has always been part of the natural habitat, carbon-based beings were never meant to thrive in places of high mercury concentrations. We certainly were never meant to have it injected into our bodies nor planted inches from our brains in our teeth. Though there is an avalanche of science pointing to the terrible biological nature of mercury as a nerve poison, we will always find organizations and people who defend the use of mercury and deny the great danger it holds for the human race.

The Republican staff of the House Resources Committee thinks public health groups are “crying wolf,” asserting that they are over-blowing the dangers of mercury.[viii] Part of the reason they think this way is that they assume incorrectly that, “All experts agree that the primary means of mercury exposure is through eating fish.” This could not be further from the truth but believing that there is no good scientific proof that fish cause harm, that mercury levels in fish are in slight decline, that there is no connection between mercury in the air and in fish, that mercury pollution in the United States is in decline, and that the United States contributes so little to the total global emissions rate, they believe there is no need to control mercury emissions in a more restrictive sense.

It is true that much of the mercury exposure of the United States population is out of reach of any federal regulation. Much airborne mercury deposited in the United States originates from abroad and this highlights the entire question about mercury. It’s everywhere, coming from everywhere, and must be stopped on an international level. Nothing demonstrates our current state of globalization better than the international nature of mercury air pollution. From 1990 to 1999, even as total airborne emissions of mercury in the United States dropped from 209.6 tons to 113.2 tons, worldwide emissions have soared literally into the stratosphere. The United Nations is completely asleep at the helm or are simply ignoring the problem for political reasons. The UN is missing out on the true threat to humanity making a mockery of its mission to serve and protect humanity. Mercury thus must be controlled in all countries simultaneously and the UN should be out front championing this cause.

The terrible news offered by Dr. Palmer from the University of Texas and the Harvard Research team is that the mercury in the air is having its direct effect on all of us. No longer is it just the fish, the vaccines or the dental amalgam that are saturating our bodies with mercury. Americans are going to have to wake up to the fact that mercury is in the air they breathe, in the soil they plant in, and in the water they drink, and getting rid of these sources will be infinitely more difficult than removing thimerosal from childhood vaccines. We have the technology and the money to dramatically cut mercury emissions starting now.

We have reached a saturation point and autism (mercury poisoning) and the avalanche of other neurological disorders is mirroring this. We can assume that people at the CDC are concerned about mercury in the air and what it is doing to the health of the nation, but we cannot rely on them to protect us from anything other than infectious diseases. The medical establishment just cannot deal with the fact the most of the diseases we see exploding today are caused by chemical poisoning with the principle toxic agent being mercury.

The people who survive into the next century will wonder at how their ancestors allowed their civilization to destroy itself en masse with mercury and an endless list of other chemicals that make mercury more toxic. Both young and old are bending under the influence of mercury whose increasing concentration threatens humanity. These are not alarmist words. We are at war with ourselves chemically, and certain very rich and powerful people are laughing as they make fortunes out of our collective misfortune. Mercury is a dramatically rising tide that is destined to rise higher and higher until mankind wakes up, but by then it will probably be too late.

[i] Mt. Olive Chronicle. March 23,2005

Some data on the scale of mercury production in tons.
Years For the whole period Average yearly production

Years For the Whole Period Average Yearly Production
1500-1600 8,981 90
1601-1700 58,532 585
1701-1800 81,957 820
1801-1900 308,085 3,080
1901-1946 193,000 4,200
1946-1967 147,981 7,399

[iii] Cape Gazette March 23, 2005

[iv] 3/23/2005

[v] EPA. 3/25/05 Jeff Homestead. Assistant administrator of the EPA’s office of air and radiation.

[vi] Mercury Connections is a summary of the major findings reported in a series of 21 papers. These papers are published in: Biogeographical patterns of environmental mercury in northeastern North America. 2005. Ecotoxicology. Volume 14, numbers 1 and 2. This project was undertaken as part of The Northeastern Ecosystem Research Cooperative (NERC). NERC is an initiative to promote collaboration among ecosystem research scientists in the northeastern U.S and eastern Canada.

[vii] EPA scientist William Farland, who is the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for science in research and development, said the EPA had not quantified the cardiac costs of mercury because “the science is just not strong enough at this point.” Washington Post article 3/23/05

[viii] Mercury in Perspective. House Resource Committee

Author: Dr. Mark Sircus, Ac., OMD, DM