So many things gall me about this issue. It seems crazy that weâ€™ve come to a place in history where fishâ€”the best possible source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is critical for a babyâ€™s brain and eye developmentâ€”is so laced with contaminants, in particular methylmercury from coal plants, that itâ€™s often too dangerous for expecting mothers to eat.
It galls me that the onus is on the â€œwoman of childbearing ageâ€ to learn about and avoid certain fish and, worse, itâ€™s up to her to weigh the benefits of crucial nutrients for fetal brain development against the risks of damage to her babyâ€™s brainâ€”all while together as a community we give polluters nearly free rein to contaminate those fish.
It should be noted that the damage done by these toxics to developing brains is far from trivial. In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that concluded that each year in the United States, as many as 60,000 children are born at risk for neurodevelopmental problems owing to prenatal exposure to mercury. These are kids that the report described as â€œstruggling to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes or special education.â€ Another studyâ€”an analysis of data gathered from 1999-2002 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveyâ€”estimates that 200,000 to 400,000 babies born in the United States each year â€œhave been exposed to mercury levels in their mothersâ€™ wombs high enough to impair neurological development.â€
Still, what is perhaps most galling to me is that most of the resources available about fish consumption, including the mainstream pregnancy books and popular expecting-mom websites, fail to mention where the dangerous mercury and other toxics come from. It is most often treated like itâ€™s just there and has always been thereâ€”a natural occurring substance (you actually get those words a lot). No culprit, no causation. Blame the fish, I guess.
So I was pleased that Mark Bittman made the connection in the NYT yesterday:
If youâ€™re like most people (including me, up until a month or two ago), you know that tuna and other top-of-the-food-chain fish contain unsafe levels of mercury and that childbirth-age women and nursing mothers, especially, are warned off these fish. What you donâ€™t know, probably (I didnâ€™t), is the mercuryâ€™s source, or how it gets in these fish.
Turns out that about three-quarters of it comes from coal-burning power plants; it dissolves in water, where micro-organisms convert it to methylmercury, a bio-available and highly toxic form that builds up in fish. The longer a fish lives, the more mercury builds in its flesh.
You could, of course, eat less big fish, but there are other sources of mercury: increasingly, itâ€™s being found in vegetables and especially grains like rice that are grown near older, and even no longer functioning, coal-burning plants.
Bittman chronicles the â€œdirty and depressingâ€ Environmental Protection Agency saga to regulate these dangerous substances. Almost needless to say, he laments, as the EPA insists that coal plants take measures to clean up our air and waterâ€”and fish, â€œthe industry and its representatives are fighting these regulations and trying to stall their implementation with all their power.â€
After decades of delays and industry ploys, in December 2011, the agency developed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), likely to go into effect in 2015. MATS looks pretty good. By regulating mercury emissions, it also decreases many other harmful emissionsâ€”including chromium, nickel and arsenic, hydrochloric and other acid gases, formaldehyde, and sootâ€”stuff that gets into our bodies in a variety of ways and can cause all kinds ofÂ health problems, including respiratory disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
By reducing mercury and the raft of other dangerous stuff that coal brings with it, implementing MATS is likely to pay off in sizable health cost savings. According to Bittman:
The EPA estimates that implementing MATS, which will cost power producers around $9 billion annually, will save as many as 11,000 lives per year while significantly reducing asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis and other diseases. These plus other factors, the agency estimates, are worth as much as $90 billion to society. Ten dollars in health benefits for every dollar spent in pollution reduction, plus an overall increase in quality of life.
So itâ€™s not just every mom out for herself, keeping her children away from dangerous fish. Itâ€™s not just about tuna. At least it shouldnâ€™t be. Itâ€™s about our food and air and healthâ€”and even about lots of money.
We all have a stake in it. And I havenâ€™t even gotten into the climate-warming greenhouse gas emissionsÂ associated with burning coal. (We do cover thatÂ now and again though.) Bittman (albeit in a footnote) reminds us that a â€œfurther unintended benefit of MATS is that by forcing the closure of some coal plants, shifting electricity production to natural gas, and so on, it will reduce carbon emissions.â€
Back when I was pregnant, I dreamed about launching a one-woman, vigilante campaign to insert information about the source of mercuryâ€”coal-fired power plantsâ€”each and every time any pregnancy book or website or hospital pamphlet discussed the dangers of eating too much fish. But then I had the baby and got kind of busy, so that didnâ€™t happen (I encourage you to write to editors of those publications though; I did back then and I think some of the articles have improved slightly, though itâ€™s rare to see coal pinpointed).
However, I still do think the effort is worthwhile. Thereâ€™s something about moms (and dads) that can get them riled up in new and exceptional ways once they make the connection between coal and fish and their babiesâ€™ brains. (As Bittman points out, thatâ€™s exactly why journalist and mother Dominique Browning started Moms Clean Air Force.) And I think momsâ€”and anybody who cares about kids and public healthâ€”are right to stand up and insist on better standards for coal plants and to think more generally about what role a dirty, last-century fuel like coal should playâ€”if anyâ€”in shaping our kidsâ€™ health and their future.
Originally published at Sightline Daily