The Myth Of Killer Mercury: Guest Post By Willie Soon & Paul Driessen

Willie Soon has graciously allowed us to reprint his and Paul Driessen’s editorial that ran in the 25 May 2011 Wall Street Journal. Dr Soon received double our normal rate (which is $0.00) for this re-post.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued 946 pages of new rules requiring that U.S. power plants sharply reduce their (already low) emissions of mercury and other air pollutants. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claims that while the regulations will cost electricity producers $10.9 billion annually, they will save 17,000 lives and generate up to $140 billion in health benefits.

There is no factual basis for these assertions. To build its case against mercury, the EPA systematically ignored evidence and clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.

Mercury has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment. A 2009 study found mercury deposits in Antarctic ice across 650,000 years. Mercury is found in air, water, rocks, soil and trees, which absorb it from the environment. This is why our bodies evolved with proteins and antioxidants that help protect us from this and other potential contaminants.

Another defense comes from selenium, which is found in fish and animals. Its strong attraction to mercury molecules protects fish and people against buildups of methylmercury, mercury’s biologically active and more toxic form. Even so, the 200,000,000 tons of mercury naturally present in seawater have never posed a danger to any living being.

How do America’s coal-burning power plants fit into the picture? They emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year. But U.S. forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year; cremation of human remains discharges 26 tons; Chinese power plants eject 400 tons; and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out 9,000-10,000 additional tons per year.

All these emissions enter the global atmospheric system and become part of the U.S. air mass. Since our power plants account for less than 0.5% of all the mercury in the air we breathe, eliminating every milligram of it will do nothing about the other 99.5% in our atmosphere.
In the face of these minuscule risks, the EPA nevertheless demands that utility companies spend billions every year retrofitting coal-fired power plants that produce half of all U.S. electricity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which actively monitors mercury exposure, blood mercury counts for U.S. women and children decreased steadily from 1999-2008, placing today’s counts well below the already excessively safe level established by the EPA. A 17-year evaluation of mercury risk to babies and children by the Seychelles Children Development Study found “no measurable cognitive or behavioral effects” in children who eat several servings of ocean fish every week, much more than most Americans do.

The World Health Organization and U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry assessed these findings in setting mercury-risk standards that are two to three times less restrictive than the EPA’s.

The EPA ignored these findings. Instead, the agency based its “safe” mercury criteria on a study of Faroe Islanders, whose diet is far removed from our own. They eat few fruits and vegetables, but they do feast on pilot-whale meat and blubber that is laced with mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—but very low in selenium. The study has limited relevance to U.S. populations.

As a result, the EPA’s actions can be counted on to achieve only one thing—which is to further advance the Obama administration’s oft-stated goal of penalizing hydrocarbon use and driving a transition to unreliable renewable energy.

The proposed standards will do nothing to reduce exaggerated threats from mercury and other air pollutants. Indeed, the rules will worsen America’s health and well-being—especially for young children and women of child-bearing age. Not only will they raise heating, air conditioning and food costs, but they will scare people away from eating nutritious fish that should be in everyone’s diet.

America needs affordable, reliable electricity. It needs better health and nutrition. It needs an EPA that focuses on real risks, instead of wasting hard-earned taxpayer and consumer dollars fabricating dangers and evidence.


  1. EPA won’t be satisfied until all of us little people are all living in grass huts and wiping our ass with rocks.

    FU Lisa Jackson

  2. Mortality is not the main problem. Methyl mercury is supposed to reduce the intelligence of children. This is difficult to prove, but is potentially damaging to society as it mean more adults incapable of caring for themselves, and a smaller number of really intelligent people.

  3. StephinPickering… Your point is a worthless and distracting one. It doesn’t follow that we need to spend billions to reduce the atmospheric amount by 0.5%.

  4. The EPA was founded on a lie and they lie continually. Remember they declared DDT a class A carcinogen despite lack of evidence. They declared environmental tobbacco smoke (ETS) a carcinogen and they had to fabricate the evidence. Dr. Briggs would have a field day analyzing the EPA statistics on ETS.

  5. Thanks to StephenPickering we now have a strong indication of why EPA staff and other elitists take such illogical views on environmental and scientific questions. From infancy they quite obviously have been fed a diet way too high on pilot whale blubber.

  6. What Gets Measured Gets Regulated.
    –for anyone involved in anything environmental post that where you won’t forget it. that is the way of the future; actually, its already the way of the recent past too….

    The fallacy is that toxins & pollutants are not always toxic & polluting when the dose rate falls below some threshold. This is, arguably, ancient forgotten wisdom.

    HORMESIS — This is the effect by which things (chemicals usually) that are generally considered toxic/deadly are found to be, in “low” doses, actually beneficial. People generally assume that something “bad” like mercury is therefore bad no matter what and reducing the amount ingested to something less than it is is ALWAYS better. At some low dose point, it makes no difference, and in many cases a hormesis benefit is lost.

    Such thinking reflects the rigorous application of linear thinking–extrapolating a characteristic linearly beyond its valid limit. The reality for most chemicals is a very non-linear effect pattern–with some positive benefits at low dose levels (see some of the charts in the papers, below). Thus, linear extrapolation reflects very lazy thinking — but its such a common problem in so many areas that this fallacious analytical approach is still considered “Common Sense” by many.

    Hormesis fell out of favor almost as soon as it was recognized (as early as the 1500s, with occasional resurgences that sputtered out over the intervening centuries). This was due to it being exploited by quacks & conartists in the form of homeopathy (infinitely diluted remedies having no medicinal ingrediants) at a time when science & medicine as structured objective disciplines were coming into shape.

    Here’s an interesting article from Discovery Mag in 2002:

    More technically involved papers include (note the non-linear trends observed — complex & not condusive to the linear extrapolations that are oh-so-easy to apply by people & agencies, like EPA, that don’t want to think but rather want to reinforce their beliefs):

    Note the dates on those very basic research efforts — starting around 2000…which shows how a bad influence (homeopathy), stereotyping, etc. (all effects of simpleminded, lazy, thinking) can stop the collection of knowledge in its tracks for centuries.

  7. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claims that while the regulations will cost electricity producers $10.9 billion annually, they will save 17,000 lives and generate up to $140 billion in health benefits.

    Deaths attributed to 19 leading risk factors (WHO) total 58.8 million worldwide (the word “mercury” doesn’t appear in the report):
    High Blood Pressure
    Tobacco use
    High Blood Glucose
    Physical inactivity
    Overweight and obesity
    High cholesterol
    Unsafe sex
    Alcohol use
    Childhood underweight
    Indoor smoke from solid fuels
    Unsafe water, sanitation, hygiene
    Low fruit and vegetable intake
    Suboptimal breastfeeding
    Urban outdoor air pollution (mostly particulate matter)
    Occupational risks
    Vitamin A deficiency
    Zinc deficiency
    Unsafe health-care injections
    Iron deficiency

    The results from the report provide powerful input for policy actions when combined with information about interventions, their costs and their efficacy. Although risk exposure estimates are based on less-than-perfect data, they are often conservative because, as health improves, gains can multiply. For example, reducing the burden of disease in the poor may raise income levels, which, in turn, will further help to reduce health inequalities. Many cost-effective interventions are also known, and prevention strategies can be transferred between similar countries. Much of the necessary scientific and economic information, evidence and research is already available for guiding policy decisions that could significantly improve global health.

    If the goal is to save lives, there are better places to spend $10.9 billion annually.

    Two billion people in the developing world are malnourished, with diets lacking essential vitamins and minerals. The health consequences are dire, especially for children. One promising solution is helping small farmers grow nutritionally enhanced staple crops like sweet potato, rice, and cassava.

  8. Expanding on Ken’s point … Pharmacologists say that “a drug is a poison that may have a beneficial side effect.” During the approval process the LD-50 (the dose that kills 50% of those taking it) and ED-50 (the dose that is effective for 50% of those taking it) are determined and approval requires a big spread between the two — a factor of 10 or 100. Using rats, of course.

  9. But not to worry, if you were so inclined. We will avoid any harmful effects of Mercury deficiency that these new regulations might bring about by widely deploying Mercury containing CFL’s. As they find there way into the trash, enough Mercury will be released to more than compensate for any reductions at power plants.
    Thank Heavens!

  10. Ken,

    The effects of mercury are cumulative (according to this and this — I’m too lazy to look for more). At least it’s a popular idea. If the effects really are cumulative the question becomes how much exposure and accumulation would be expected by some percentage of the population. Obviously, some trade offs should be made.

    It’s not clear (as if it ever is) how the EPA comes up with numbers for Lives Saved and dollar amounts for Health Benefits.

  11. DAV … your first link is missing an “f” on the end (as in .pdf) and says in part,

    The concern over exposure is different if the exposure is chronic or acute. If the exposure is low grade and chronic (continual over time) as is much of the industrial exposure, the kidneys may remove it in urine. This can occur for several months after the last exposure. This flushing process happens without apparent damage to the body.

    The difficulties with mercury arise from acute (larger doses) exposure. In the body, mercury combines with sulfhydril groups in the cells and depresses the enzymatic system of the cells. Repeated exposure at high levels can harm the central nervous system and cause mood swings, shaky hands, difficulty walking, slurred speech, hallucinations, and loss of memory and concentration.

    I think we’re talking about a low grade and chronic exposure here.

    The second link is so completely lacking in information as to be useless to readers of this blog. I located the abstract which included both the headline statistic, “I-Hg detection rose sharply from 2% in 1999–2000 to 30% in 2005–2006” and the less frightening, “In addition, the population averaged mean I-Hg concentration rose significantly over that same period from 0.33 to 0.39 μ/L (Anova, P < 0.001)."
    (fulltext EUR 34.95)

    Which takes us back to Adam H's comment and the article's point that the EPA is planning to have US consumers of electricity spend $10 billion per year to reduce the airborne mercury by less than 0.05%.

  12. “19 leading risk factors”: but ‘risk factor’ just means ‘positive correlate’ doesn’t it? I mean, no one says that heavy metal is a risk factor for heavy metal poisoning: we say it’s a cause of heavy metal poisoning.

  13. From The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom:

    “As everyone dies eventually no lives are ever saved by reducing environmental
    exposures – deaths are delayed resulting in increased life expectancy.”

    Thus the statement, “they will save 17,000 lives” is nonsense regardless of the numbers.

  14. dearieme … from the report:

    Although there are many possible definitions of “health risk”, it is defined in this report as “a factor that raises the probability of adverse health outcomes”. The number of such factors is countless and the report does not attempt to be comprehensive. For example, some important risks associated with exposure to infectious disease agents or with antimicrobial resistance are not included. The report focuses on selected risk factors which have global spread, for which data are available to estimate population exposures or distributions, and for which the means to reduce them are known.

    The report also analyzes the data in terms of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

    The DALY combines years of life lost due to premature death with years of healthy life lost due to illness and disability.

    In any case, the finite resources available should be spent where they will do the most good. This means that the reported $259,000 cost of a kidney transplant (or $30,000 per year for dialysis) required to add years to the life of a patient with two failed kidneys should be compared to the benefit of spending that money on improved nutrition for third world children.

    (sources for cost data)
    If you’re interested in health care cost, the Milliman report contains much useful information.

  15. I remember reading the results of a study from a few years ago with regard to mercury levels and intelligence in young children in the UK. They found a significant correlation between mercury levels and intelligence. However, the sign of this correlation was not what most people would have expected — higher mercury levels were associated with higher intelligence.

  16. Curt … perhaps this is the article you remember:
    Fish Diet in Pregnancy May Hone Kids’ IQ

    Mothers who ate more seafood than was considered to be safe according to U.S. guidelines, had children who:
    · were more advanced in development tests measuring fine motor, communication and social skills as toddlers;
    · had more positive social behaviours;
    · were less likely to have low verbal IQ scores at the age of 8.

    Conversely, the less fish the mothers ate the more likely the children were to perform poorly in these areas. For example, those children whose mothers had eaten no fish were:
    · 28 per cent more likely to have poor communication skills at 18 months
    · 35 per cent more likely to have poor fine motor coordination at age three and a half
    · 44 per cent more likely to have poor social behaviour at age seven
    · 48 per cent more likely to have a relatively low verbal IQ at age 8

    when compared with children of women who ate more than the U.S. guidelines advise.

  17. Hmmm: US power plants contribute 0.5% of all Mercury in the atmosphere.

    Eliminating that will save 17,000 lives annually.

    So the remaining 99.5% of atmospheric Mercury must still cause 3,400,000 deaths every year in the US. (3,400,000 x 0.005 = 17,000.)

    Wow—so Mercury causes a total of 3.4M deaths every year in the US! Who knew?

    Considering that only 2.4M people die annually in the US from all causes, that’s quite some calculation the Feds have going here.

    Hg must cause all deaths from heart disease, stroke, cancer, infection, accidents, plus another unrecorded million deaths to boot!

    My tax dollars at work (sigh)…

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