Center for Progressive Reform

Mercury Pollution

Children at Risk Toxic Element

As many as 1 in 10 women of child-bearing age in the United States have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, exposing their babies to unnecessary and dangerous risk of neurological harm. Much of the pollution results from burning coal for electricity. The resulting mercury pollution goes up smokestacks in the form of air pollution, then settles in rivers and streams, where fish absorb it. Eventually, the mercury ends up in fish that humans eat – tuna fish, for example, as well as other fish on the upper end of the food chain.

In May 2009, CPR Member Scholar Catherine O'Neill (Seattle University Law School) testified before the U.S. House House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, addressing a different industrial source of mercury pollution -- chlor-alkali plants.  Chlor-alkali -- or caustic soda as it is sometimes called -- is used in several manufacturing processes, including the production of paper.  It can be produced by several methods, one of which emits mercury as a byproduct.  Four plants in the United States still use this out-moded, and by comparison inefficient mercury-emitting method of production, and together they are truly the low-hanging fruit in efforts to reduce mercury pollution because they can be so readily replaced.  Professor O'Neill made precisely that point in her testimony.  (The news release is here.)

CPR Member Scholars work to strengthen existing restrictions on mercury pollution by power plants, chlor-alkali plants, and others.

  • Portland Oregonian Op-Ed.  Read "Mercury and the DEQ: trading our health for economic gain," by Daniel J. Rohlf, September 4, 2009 in the Portland Oregonian.
  • Testimony.  Read Catherine O'Neill's May 12, 2009 Testimony on the need to act on the remaining mercury-emitting chlor-alkili plants in the United States, before the U.S. House House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Read the news release.
  • Baltimore Sun Op-Ed.  Read Rena Steinzor's February 21, 2008 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun on why a federal court decision rejecting the Bush Administration's cap-and-trade approach to mercury pollution violates the law.
  • Seattle P-I Op-Ed.  Read Catherine O'Neill's October 31, 2007 op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Tuna, with a side of mercury.” In it, she notes the conflicting advice to expectant mothers from seemingly reliable sources about fish consumption and mercury pollution, and argues that the real solution is to stop burdening women with the challenge of avoiding such risks, and instead burden polluters with the responsibility of preventing them.
  • CPR Report.  Read Catherine O'Neill's October 2004 report on mercury pollution's effect on minorities in the Upper Great Lakes region, Mercury, Risk and Justice.
  • A CPR Perspective.  CPR Member Scholars have authored articles on related topics, as part of the CPR Perspectives Series. These include Perspectives on Emissions Trading and Mercury.


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