The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently published an op-ed "The Myth of Killer Mercury" by Willie Soon and Paul Driessen. You can find the original piece here. EEN submitted the following note to the editors of the WSJ and received no reply. Please note this piece contains footnotes linked at the end of the author's tagline.
by Mitch Hescox
We all tell fish stories. Those wonderful stories of the fish that got away, and it was much larger in the veracity of our imagination than reality. All of us tell tales greater than the truth. Maybe the motivation for the fish story resides in our desire for others to believe our stories; or perhaps we become so convicted in our beliefs that the reality of the truth goes beyond our capacity to see past our prejudices. Researchers know that no one is unbiased " that is why peer-review is so critical. Having others evaluate one's work minimizes the bias.
Unfortunately, fish stories make it more and more into respected publications. Certainly, I have made mistakes in my writing, but through proper vetting my embellishments are reduced and the truth hopefully emerges. Seeing something in print filled with misstatements or that is poorly researched raises my blood pressure and also raises the question the author's intent. Just last week the Wall Street Journal published, "The Myth of Killer Mercury" by Willie Soon and Paul Driessen. The op-ed clearly stands against the new EPA proposed standards for mercury and other air pollutants, something my organization supports. Hopefully the authors just made errors in research and were not attempting any misinformation. Below are just a few of the op-ed's faulty assertions with an attempt to correct the record.
" 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.
The EPA is not claiming that the 17,000 lives saved and $140 billion in health benefits will come from mercury reductions. Rather, these particular savings come from the health benefits of the reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter, and the EPA makes this abundantly clear. For these claims there is a substantial factual basis. It is hard to understand how Soon and Driessen could have misunderstood this.
" 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"
Health professionals for over 100 years have known that mercury is a serious threat. The term "Mad-Hatter" started from factory workers inhaling mercury used in the felt hat industry in 19th century England. While mercury poses less of a health problem to adults, unborn children are extremely vulnerable because their bodies are too young to have developed our natural defenses against it. Currently 1 in 6 unborn children have harmful levels of mercury in their blood.1 The FDA has issued detailed warnings on fish consumption during pregnancy and all 50 states have either complete or partial fish advisories for locally caught fish.2,3 Soon and Driessen must know that the unborn and young children are much more vulnerable.
" But U.S. forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year; cremation of human remains discharges 26 tons"
While reputable researchers have estimated that forest fires place 44 tons tons of mercury into the air each year as Soon and Driessen claim, the mercury actually originates from coal-burning power plants, the very sources Soon and Driessen don't want us to regulate. The emissions from burning coal fall into forests, and then spread from the hot updrafts as the forest burns.4 As for their assertion about cremation, according to the latest mercury assessment, crematoriums emit less than 1 ton, not the 26 tons they erroneously claim.5 It's hard to understand how Soon and Driessen could have so completely mischaracterized and misstated these facts.
Soon and Driessen also seem to place the blame for our mercury problem on foreign nations. Depending upon where you live, anywhere from 10 to 80% of US mercury pollution comes from domestic sources6 and over 50% of domestic anthropogenic mercury emissions come from coal-burning power plants, making them the largest such source.7 Global mercury emissions do remain large in Asia, but I for one don't wish to wait for the Chinese to protect our unborn children. Individual state efforts8,9 prove we can reduce mercury and the threats to our unborn. With a national standard, we can continue removing mercury as a threat by reducing 91% of the mercury emissions and 55% of the SO2 emissions from the largest source of these emissions in the US: coal-burning power plants.10
" 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". Instead, the agency based its "safe" mercury criteria on a study of Faroe Islanders"
The authors place huge weight on the Seychelles Island study over against the Faroe Islands study. First, the Faroe Islands research selection came not from the EPA but from a report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, who clearly thought it was appropriate. Second, there is no mention of a similar study with matching results to that of the Faroe Islands study, completed in New Zealand. Finally, the updated research from the Seychelles study (2010) correlates to both the Faroe Islands and New Zealand research.11 The selective use of an older study, which itself has been superseded by an updated version that now agrees with the other studies, raises serious questions about the reliability of this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
We have a tendency to laugh at fish stories. Our hearts know that when told at a family picnic they are harmless and part of our American culture. Yet our new American culture allows fish stories to end up as op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. The unfortunate "fish story" here is that many fish contain dangerous levels of mercury, and the fish threaten our unborn children. They deserve more than a fish story; the unborn deserve our protection and an abundant life.
The Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox is President/C.E.O. of The Evangelical Environmental Network, a ministry dedicated to promoting Creation Care: It's a Matter of Life.
Maffey et al., "Blood Organic Mercury and Dietary Mercury Intake",Environmental Health Perspectives, 112, #5 (April 2004).
 EPA website, http://www.epa.gov/mercury/about.html. Data from the 2005 National EmissionsInventory
Selin, "Global Biogeochemical Cycling of Mercury: A Review," Annual Review of Environmental. Resources(2009) Vol. 34 (2009): p. 48
EPA website, http://www.epa.gov/mercury/about.html. Data from the 2005 National EmissionsInventory
Florida DEP, Integrating Atmospheric Mercury Deposition with Aquatic Cycling inSouth Florida, Nov 2003.
EPA, Power Plant Mercury and Air ToxicsStandards: Overview of Proposed Rule and Impacts, p. 2.
Lynch, ML, L-S Huang, C Cox, JJ Strain, GJ Myers, MP Bonham, CF Shamlaye, AStokes-Riner, JMW Wallance, EM Duffy, TW Clarkson and PW Davidson. 2010. Varying coefficient function models to explore interactions between maternal nutritional status andprenatal methylmercury toxicity in the Seychelles Child Development Nutrition Study. Environmental Research http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2010.09.005.