(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Park City, Utah — On June 8, 2017, at the Waterkeeper Alliance International Conference in Park City, Utah, EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry sat down with legendary environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to discuss an array of water-related topics, including mercury poisoning. Kennedy shared his own personal experience with this issue as well as his views on the broader related environmental and human health ramifications.
Urry asked Kennedy whether, in his opinion, it is “even safe to eat seafood, with all the contamination that’s been accumulating in the waterways over the years.” Kennedy replied:
Our fish consumption is dangerous now… In my view, we’re living in a science fiction nightmare… Where my children and the children of most Americans can now no longer engage in a seminal primal activity of American youth, which is to go fishing with their father or mother in the local fishing hole and then come home and safely eat the fish.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element that can be harmful to living beings when it accumulates. The generation of coal-fired electricity and the incineration of waste are two of the main activities that release mercury into the environment. In 2010, two-thirds of U.S. airborne mercury pollution came from coal-fired power plants.
Airborne mercury permeates the water system, builds up in marine life and bioaccumulates, particularly in larger predators. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that mercury falling from the air becomes methylmercury in the water – a substance the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes as “a powerful neurotoxin.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explains mercury “poisons the kidneys and nervous system.” Mercury poisoning can also cause reproductive issues and neurological disorders and the EPA reports it is especially a concern for young children, women of childbearing age and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
“Mercury is dangerous and I did have very dangerous levels of mercury… I was starting to have word retrieval and memory problems that I’d never had before… that was very disturbing to me,” Kennedy said of his past exposure. One doctor found that he had built up “enormous level of mercury” in his body from eating fish. “I am a fisherman and I fish freshwater fish, which it turns out are very heavily loaded,” he continued. Kennedy also had mercury in his mouth within dental amalgams, which he had removed. “The dentists aren’t allowed to talk about it but the science on it is really, really clear.”
According to the EPA, possible symptoms of methylmercury poisoning include “loss of peripheral vision; ‘pins and needles’ feelings, usually in the hands, feet and around the mouth; lack of coordination of movements; impairment of speech, hearing and walking; and muscle weakness.” Infants and children may experience negative impacts to memory, cognitive thinking, language, attention, fine motor skills and visual spatial skills.
Kennedy cautions that blood and hair mercury tests are not always sufficient, though hair is preferable. He recommends a urine dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) challenge test. Kennedy underwent a treatment for mercury poisoning known as chelation therapy, which can alleviate heavy metal poisoning from mercury, lead, arsenic and even radioactive isotopes. Chelators are complex negatively charged ions with many bonding sites. The molecules bind to positively charged metals in blood and tissue, whereafter both are eliminated in the urine. Kennedy said the chelators had to be taken “with a lot of minerals and vitamins because they tend to deplete other good minerals in your body that you want to keep.”
A 2009 EPA mercury study collected fish from 500 randomly selected U.S. lakes and reservoirs. Mercury, as well as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were detected in every fish sample from all 500 lakes and reservoirs. Forty-nine percent of the samples had mercury concentrations exceeding the EPA’s human health screening value (SV) of 0.3 ppm (parts-per-million). A human health SV is a level above which concern for health risks exist.
The EPA has also arrived at a reference dose (RfD) level for methylmercury, which is their “estimate of the maximum acceptable daily exposure to humans that is not likely to cause harmful effects during a lifetime.” The 2001 and current RfD for methylmercury is 0.1 ug (micrograms) per kg (kilogram) of body weight daily, which is equal to 0.01 ppm. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) also publish mercury guidelines. The current JEFCA provisional tolerable weekly intake (PTWI) is 1.6 µg/kg/week, which equals about 0.23 µg/kg/day — more than twice the U.S. RfD.
However, environmental and public health watchdog groups find the EPA and JECFA mercury limits insufficient to protect human health. For example, a 2009 report from the Zero Mercury Working Group, the European Environmental Bureau and the European Commission calls for a lower definition of tolerable mercury exposure. This publication evaluates and summarizes “epidemiological research on the effects of methylmercury on the developing brain” dating back to the 1950s, and finds “the RfD and the PTWI for methylmercury are no longer valid definitions of ‘safe’ exposure.” In summary, the paper recommends new international guidelines of 0.025 µg/kg/day – 25 percent of the current US RfD and about 11 percent of the JECFA daily limit.
Dr. Brian Moench, Founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a group of over 500 medical doctors, weighed in on the EPA mercury limits with EnviroNews. He said he doesn’t trust EPA standards for these two reasons:
First, in general, those standards are almost always heavily influenced by politics and industry pressure, and that has been true under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Second, historically, those kinds of standards have also looked at primarily the toxicology literature, not the medical literature. There is a growing gap between what the medical literature says is safe and what the toxicology literature says.
He expounded his point of view by comparing mercury and lead, which has now been universally acknowledged as unsafe in any amount:
Mercury is recognized as being much more neurotoxic than lead, perhaps as much as 1,000 times more toxic than lead. So, how can there be a ‘safe’ dose of mercury? There isn’t. Instead of the EPA recommending a limit on fish consumption, they should say, ‘Just as there is no safe amount of lead exposure, even more so, there is no safe amount of mercury exposure.’
For those who want to become more informed about mercury levels in fish and learn more about how the seafood they eat affects the planet, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) runs a “Seafood Selector” site. It offers information on mercury levels in fish and gives eco-ratings as well. For example, “Eco-Best Choices include fish from healthy, well-managed populations, and the fishing or farming methods used to catch or raise the fish cause little harm to the environment.” The FDA lists shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish as fish with particularly high levels of mercury. Also, the EPA provides an interactive U.S. map that allows users to search for local fish advisories.
In 2011, the EPA issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) to regulate coal and oil-fired power plant pollution emissions, with a compliance date in 2015. The Agency claims MATS has led to power plant updates and prevent an estimated “11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year beginning in 2016.” But in April 2017, the EPA under Scott Pruitt announced it was going to reconsider whether or not to defend MATS against a coalition of utility and mining companies and State Attorneys General seeking to repeal the rule.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, dated December 13, 2011, 22 of the Nation’s top mercury researchers and the Executive Director for Physicians for Social Responsibility expressed their belief “that there should be no change in the MATS.” The communication stated:
Mercury has no biologically beneficial function; indeed, each atom that ends up in the body can be toxic to all types of cells. Mercury is such a potent toxin because it bonds very strongly to functionally important sites of proteins including enzymes, antibodies and nerve growth-cones that keep cells alive, ‘intelligent’ and safe. Target enzymes, organs, or metabolic pathways vulnerable to mercury poisoning may change from cell to cell, person to person and in the same individual over time. Regardless, minimizing all mercury exposure is essential to improving human, wildlife and ecosystem health because exposure to mercury in any form places a heavy burden on the biochemical machinery within cells of all living organisms.
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