William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Science In The Mercury Report By Florida’s DEP — Guest Post By Willie Soon

Our friend Willie Soon wrote this editorial in response to this letter from the Florida DEP. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is here.

As a scientist who has spent the past ten years studying the science of mercury (Hg) and the biologically toxic form of mercury, methylmercury (MeHg), I was taken aback by the clear misuse of the phrase “good science” in a recent letter by Florida DEP’s director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration (published in the Florida Times-Union newspaper).

The director referred to FDEP’s draft report1 in setting a strict mercury limit in Florida’s river, stream, lake, and coastal waters, which was released May 24. After a careful examination of the draft report, however, I have come to the conclusion that it contains serious flaws such that the strict mercury limit proposed by FDEP is not scientifically defensible.

First, FDEP’s notion that mercury “pollution” in our air, water, and land is a new, man-made phenomenon is simply wrong. While FDEP cited a 2008 paper2 that reported mean mercury levels of 0.25 parts per million (or ppm) in the hair of a group of women of childbearing age (16 to 49) in the Florida Panhandle, a study of 550-year-old Alaskan mummies3 reported average hair mercury levels of 1.2 ppm for four adults and 1.44 ppm for four infants. One mummy had hair mercury levels as high as 4.6 ppm!

Even more importantly, the FDEP draft report failed to consider the 17-year-long Seychelles Islands study4, which found no harm, nor any indications of harm, from mercury in children whose mothers ate 5 to 12 servings of fish per week. In establishing the exposure risk of MeHg by fish consumption (most relevant to Floridians), the authors of this study argued that no consistent patterns of adverse associations existed between prenatal MeHg exposures and detailed neurological and behavioral testing. They concluded that despite the risk of MeHg to expectant mothers, “ocean fish consumption during pregnancy is important for the health and development of children and that the benefits are long lasting.” Indeed, the latest Centers for Disease Control data show blood mercury levels for U.S. women and children are already below EPA’s “safe” levels for mercury—the most restrictive mercury health in the world.

It is useful to note the FDEP draft report cited a 1972 study that confirmed tuna mercury levels in the past were higher (or at least not substantially lower) than tuna caught in the world’s oceans today. Although expecting to find a 9 percent to 26 percent increase in levels of MeHg, Princeton University scientists found no increase (actually, a minor decline) in fish tissue mercury levels after comparing Pacific Ocean tuna samples from 1971 and 1998. Those scientists concluded fish mercury level “is not responding to anthropogenic emissions irrespective of the mechanisms by which mercury is methylated in the oceans and accumulated in tuna.”5

Second, it is curious that the FDEP draft report failed to note that forest fires in the state of Florida alone were estimated to emit more than 4,000 lbs of mercury per year from 2002 to 2006 alone.6 This single source of local mercury emissions is comparable to, if not significantly higher than, the mercury emitted for 2009 from all man-made mercury sources in Florida, including coal-fired power plants (which emit less than 1,500 lbs per year).

The FDEP draft report also repeatedly mentioned volcanoes as an important source of global mercury emissions but somehow fell short in conveying the full scale of this natural source of mercury. A new study7 in the January 2012 issue of the journal Geology noted a truly huge emission of mercury during the Latest Permian era (about 250 million years ago) where the event was estimated to emit about 7,600 tons per year! This is about four times larger than current estimates of the amount of man-made Hg emissions globally, and it persisted for nearly 500,000 years.

Such large sources of mercury resulting from the natural environment can explain why it is not surprising to find high levels of mercury in old samples taken before contamination by modern sources of mercury emission. These high levels have been observed in the hair of Florida panthers and south Florida raccoons as well as fish and aquatic life.

It is equally important to dispel the false impression from the FDEP draft report that mercury “pollution” in Florida’s watersheds and fishes is increasing. A note of caution from the U.S. EPA is clear: Contaminants in fish have been increasingly monitored since the 1970s, which has resulted in more advisories being issued due solely to increased sampling by the various states and “not necessarily due to increased levels or frequency of contamination.”

I would further note there is a serious flaw in FDEP’s draft report that sets a mercury limit of 1.25 parts per trillion (or 0.00000125 ppm) as the new standard for Florida’s inland and coastal waters. It is tacitly assumed by the FDEP that water mercury levels are directly related to fish tissue mercury levels. In fact, no such relationship exists, and indeed the FDEP draft report admits on page 58 that “Using the data collected for the [Florida Mercury Project], no relationship is observed when comparing total mercury in the water column to total mercury in fish tissues.”

Perhaps it is time for FDEP to reconsider the scientific basis of its mercury rule-making.

Why is the FDEP so intent on setting mercury levels below those existing in nature? Why is it so difficult for the FDEP to fully disclose or explain such publicly available information from the scientific literature to all concerned citizens of Florida? Scientific inquiry must be above political pressure and partisan advocacy. Good decisions can arise only if the scientific evidence and knowledge are examined fully, without a selective bias.

Willie Soon is an independently minded Ph.D. scientist who has been studying the biogeochemical nature of mercury in our environment and ecosystem for the past 10 years.

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1PDF.

2Karouna-Renier et al. (2008) Environmental Research, vol. 108, 320-326.

3See Middaugh on pp 53-68 of July 24, 2002’s FDA’s Food Advisory Committee on MeHg.
(link) and also Arnold and Middaugh (2004) in Use of Traditional Foods in a Healthy Diet in Alaska: Risks in Perspective (available at: link).

4Davidson et al. (2011) Neurotoxicology, vol. 32, 711-717. Note that the evaluations and tests have also been done for the main cohort of SCDS at age 19 years.

5Kraepiel et al. (2004) Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 38, 4048 and see also Kraepiel et al., (2003) Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 37, 5551-5558

6Wiedinmyer and Friedli (2007) Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 41, 8092-8098.

7Sanei et al. (2012) Geology, vol. 40, 63-66.

8 Comments

  1. Noblesse Oblige

    5 June 2012 at 11:56 am

    “Scientific inquiry must be above political pressure and partisan advocacy. Good decisions can arise only if the scientific evidence and knowledge are examined fully, without a selective bias.”

    Alas science has become the handmaiden of politicians.

  2. It is politics masquerading as science.

  3. @Willie Soon & Noblesse Oblige,

    In order for scientific inquiry to be above political preassure and partisan advocacy it must be completely divorced from all government funding.

    This incudes state funded universities.

    As long as science is dependent on government funding, scientists will be subject to the wims of polliticians.

    Matt.

  4. Good post Willie Soon. In my old stomping grounds mercury in fishes (shell fish in particular) is often used to discourage people from harvesting seafood directly off the beach. I’ve often wondered how dangerous it really is since trawlers are frequently working within sight of the shore line.

    I don’t eat shellfish, or seafood, but have always wondered. :)

  5. “Willie Soon is an INDEPENDENTLY minded Ph.D. scientist….”

    Many would hardly call Soon independent-minded, or was that meant facetiously….

  6. “Many would hardly call Soon independent-minded, or was that meant facetiously‚Ķ.”

    You mean a researcher must be free of all prejudices, financially independent and therefore self funded, and have all his work subjected to double-blind protocols, or are you yourself being facetious?

    Either that, or we take all research claims with a healthy dose of scepticism.

  7. Why is the FDEP so intent on setting mercury levels below those existing in nature?

    In it’s zeal to take advantage of the Energy Act of 2005’s tax credits available to the constructors of the first 6 GW of new nuclear power plants in the US, Progress Energy committed $1 billion towards construction of a pair of nuclear power plants.(The credits are worth about $2 billion) The Florida legislature then allowed these costs to be passed on to rate payers. The need for new power plants in Florida was premised on a continued strong migration to Florida.
    Then the housing bust happened.

    The Energy Act of 2005 stipulated that the new power plants had to be completed before 2021. Given current electricity demand projections in Florida they are not going to need those new power plants until 2023 or later unless an equivalent amount of coal fired plants are forced to close.

  8. David L. Hagen

    12 June 2012 at 10:29 pm

    It appears that the hidden goal is not human health, but to twist the tail that wags the dog – to eliminate coal fired power.

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