Local industries around the Great Lakes are pumping mercury into the air and water through coal combustion. Half of all mercury emitting into the Great Lakes region comes from just 25 of the 144 coal-fired power plants in the area, according to a new report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The problem is that the coal plants are burning coal with traces of mercury, which then contaminates the air and water. This is causing other environmental problems and threatening the health of the local population.
“Mercury is a dangerous brain poison that doesn’t belong in our Great Lakes,” said Attorney Thom Cmar from the NRDC office in Chicago, in a press release. “It puts the health of kids and pregnant women at risk, and adds an unwelcome danger to eating what our fishermen catch.”
The NRDC report, “Poisoning the Great Lakes: Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants in the Great Lakes Region,” outlines eight states that contribute heavily to the pollution.
Regarding the plants responsible for producing half the total mercury emissions around the Great Lakes, the ones in Ohio produce the most—being responsible for 21 percent. Pennsylvania isn’t far behind, however, at 20 percent. This is followed by Indiana at 16 percent, Michigan at 14 percent, Illinois at 11 percent, Wisconsin at 9.5 percent, Minnesota at 6.5 percent, and finally, New York with a low 2 percent.
“Mercury is poisoning the Great Lakes,” said Cindy Copeland, author of the report, in a press release.
“The three states—Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania—that impose no rules, are by far the worst offenders. Airborne mercury from coal-fired power plants in the Great Lakes region harms our health, and the benefits of reducing mercury emissions are well worth the cost,” Copeland said. “With a reduction of health costs to the economy at up to $90 billion, it is hard to say no to this.”
The other half of the mercury pollution comes from a other coal mines in the area, as well as plants from outside the region and even foreign countries—among them are China, India, and Russia, whose polluted air drifts over the Great Lakes region and settles in the soil and water.
After mercury settles into the soil and water, microorganisms begin changing it into the chemical methylmercury, which is highly toxic. The methylmercury then accumulates in fish and shellfish.
When people and animals eat the fish and shellfish, they get a constant dose of the toxic mercury. Continuous exposure means continuous accumulation of methylmercury, which is not easily broken down or eliminated in living organisms, whether fish, animals, or humans.
Mercury also has the potential to damage the central nervous system, the brain, and other internal organs—such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, and immune system. The risk is even greater for pregnant women and young children.
People who regularly eat fish, including Native American tribes whose diets consist of fish from the Great Lakes, are at a considerably higher risk of mercury exposure. According to the study, 11 million people, including 2.5 million children, fished in or near the Great Lakes in 2006. Many Native American tribes and fishermen rely of the Great Lakes for economic and nutritional sustenance.
In 2010, the 144 coal plants in the area sent 13,000 pounds of mercury into the air. These numbers represent close to 25 percent of the nation’s total. The Great Lakes account for approximately 90 percent of the nation’s fresh water supply, and 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply.
Efforts to control this problem include requirements issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit mercury and other pollutants emitted by coal plants nationwide by 2015. The EPA estimates that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard could save $37 billion to $90 billion in 2016 by reducing health care costs.
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