Mercury Poisoning: A Parents’ Revolt


Written by Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune

On Dec. 16, the Obama administration is expected to finally release new standards for protecting us from mercury and other toxic heavy metals from power plant emissions. All of us have reason to be glad, but parents (and anyone who might ever want to be a parent) should especially welcome this long overdue protection. My wife Mary and I co-authored a column for Sierra magazine that explains why:

It started before we even brought our first child home from the hospital. Electrical sockets needed to be covered, cabinet doors secured, knives stowed out of the reach of tiny hands. We live in earthquake country, so we finally got around to bolting our bookshelves to the wall.

Like any parents, we’ll do anything in our power to keep our kids safe. We know that our power has its limits, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Getting the house ready was just the beginning. We were also determined to protect our daughter from less-obvious dangers. Well aware of the toxic chemicals that increasingly find their way into our bodies, we shopped for the healthiest foods we could find — and still do.

Of course, not all Americans have the same easy access to fresh, organic, and healthy foods that we do. In lots of neighborhoods it can be hard to find decent produce. But even so, you’d think there’d still be plenty of nutritious alternatives to fast food, like the humble tuna sandwich.

Not anymore. Tuna, like many types of fish, is often contaminated with mercury, a neurotoxin that damages the brain and nervous system, particularly in fetuses and young children. Mercury in the bloodstreams of pregnant and nursing women can result in birth defects like learning disabilities, reduced IQ, and cerebral palsy.

We’ve known about the dangers of mercury for a century. (It’s what made the Mad Hatter mad.) We’ve also known how the fish get contaminated: primarily via coal-fired power plants, whose smokestacks spew almost 50 tons of mercury annually into the air we breathe.

A heavy metal like mercury does not stay in the atmosphere for long. It eventually falls to Earth, inexorably working its way up the food chain until it winds up in the tuna sandwich in some kid’s lunch box — or on the sushi platter ordered by a young woman who’s just become pregnant.

And that’s where we get mad — both as environmentalists and as parents: There is absolutely no reason our kids should be exposed to this poison. The EPA was first charged with limiting toxic air pollutants like mercury more than 20 years ago, during the George H. W. Bush administration. The technology to filter mercury from coal-plant smokestacks is widely available. But there’s still no national limit on how much mercury a coal-fired power plant can release into the air. It’s like debating what kind of childproof latches to put on the cabinets while the kids are playing with the knives.

This past March, the EPA finally proposed a standard that would require coal plants to keep more than 90 percent of their mercury emissions out of the atmosphere. The new rule would also apply to such cancer-causing metals as arsenic, chromium, and nickel. Filtering out these poisons would prevent hundreds of thousands of illnesses and up to 17,000 premature deaths each year. It would be the single biggest measure to save American lives in a generation.

Incredibly, it might not happen. As we write this, the EPA is under attack by politicians whose first allegiance is not to American children but to the polluters who don’t want to clean up their dirty power plants. Possible reason: The polluters shelled out nearly $30 million to these members of Congress who continue to vote for dirty air.

We know that it’s impossible to protect our children from every possible harm. Inevitably, knees will get scraped and probing fingers will get pinched in cabinet doors, and that giant leap off the porch might end in a tumble. But to endanger our kids solely for the sake of polluters’ bottom line? As parents, and as Americans, that’s something we can never accept.

Take Action: Tell Obama to clean up toxic mercury.


Related Stories:

The Dangers of Mercury: Help Support Clean Air

It’s Not About The Fish

When Will Your Mad As Hell Moment Happen?


Photo from ThinkStock


William C
William C3 months ago


W. C
W. C4 months ago

Thank you for the information.

v s.
Veronica-Mae s6 years ago

There is no safe level for mercury. The fact that millions of people have amalgam (mercury) fillings is NOT an indication that they are safe. The act of chewing, brushing teeth and so forth releases mercury from the filling. Why is is that the residue of amalgam after a tooth has been filled has to be treated as hazardous waste yet it is considered safe to be in our mouths? The improved heath of those who have had amalgam removed is testimony to its poisonous effect - BUT it has to be removed under the most stringent safety precautions because it is so dangerously toxic. Best thing is not to have them in the first place

Mit W.
Mit Wes6 years ago


... than a one in a million case of mercury poisoning from mercurochrome when use topically, if, even that ?

Mit W.
Mit Wes6 years ago

One really has to distinguish between the different compounds of mercury and elemental mercury itself.

The least poisonous is elemental mercury. You can actually consume ounces of it without ill effect. Combined in the alloy, dental amalgam, it's very stable and obviously nontoxic. There are over a billion fillings to prove the point. Mercury vapor, though, is posionous as, unlike the digestive tract, the lungs will absorb the element into the blood. But, the dose makes the poison and the amount released from a CFL bulb breakage just won't do it.

Then there are the truly poisonous compounds, particularly di-methyl-mercury ( Hg-2(CH3)). This really is the neurotoxic killer that everyone is rightly scared of.

Thiomersal is quite poisonous at high enough quantities, which is far more than what was found in vaccines. The body also clears it within a few weeks (converted to ethylmercury and then cleared)

Methylmercury, the kind of mercury in tunafish, has a half-life in the body of 50 days.

It should be noted that, even if all manmade mercury emissions were to halt, There would still be somewhat more than half the mercury in the environment, and our food as that is what is emitted naturally. We should still elliminate our emissions, but don't expect that to fully take care of the problem.

Anyone remember Mercurochrome? While there are truly better compounds to use today without even a residue risk of mercury posioning, can anyone really point to more t

Redgie H.
Redgie H6 years ago

Catherine F,
Your child will get far more mercury from a single tuna sandwich than from all of the required immunizations combined. You mention media spin, but I'm wondering where you got your fear to begin with. Possibly from a media campaign promoting some doctor's book? A doctor who probably knows little more about chemistry and vaccine manufacturing techniques than you.

Roger Monk
Past Member 6 years ago

Thank you for posting.

Richard A.
Richard A6 years ago


jim hockley
jim hockley6 years ago

mercury is quite prevalent. in the 50's i used to use it to clean my coin collection. no one told me it was toxic. not sure what the damage may have been but now in 3rd world countries people clean the gold with mercury in their shacks and have no idea it's toxic. for that and a hundred other reasons don't buy gold.

Catherine F.

Okay, that's a good start, but how come mercury is allowed in vaccines (Thimerosal)?
Check that out on the CDC's web site. Media spin is that mercury/Thimerosal is taken out of vaccines. Well, investigate multiple shot vials AND it's still used in making/processing vaccines but said to be filtered out. Not all gets out of vaccines; a 'minute' amount is still present that health officials say won't do harm. Mercury is a neurotoxin, and any amount is harmful.