ANNOUNCER: In Putnam County New York's PBS's David Brancaccio.
Welcome to NOW.
Behind me is one of the many reservoirs in New York.
Thanks to Congress getting tough on pollution about three decades ago, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams in America have generally got a lot cleaner.
In fact, that lake holds some of the finest drinking water in the country.
But the fish that live there, walleye in fact, are contaminated with methylmercury, a toxic pollutant. Eat no more than one meal a month says the government.
Much of the mercury is emitted from the stacks of coal fired power plants.
What's wrong with a little mercury and where does the effort stand to get rid of it?
Therein lies a tale about government officials and the power of the industries they regulate.
Brenda Breslauer produced this report.
MATTHEW DAVIS: I didn't know anything of mercury as a poison. All I knew was, Mercury was a planet and I was not related to a planet. And so when my mom says, "I think you might have mercury poisoning," I'm like, "I never went to Mercury." So, it was kind of funny in a way, but scary in another way.
BRANCACCIO: Eleven-year-old Matthew Davis has learned a lot about mercury in the past year and a half, specifically the kind of mercury that's turning up in our food.
Matthew's mother, Joan Davis, makes her son's proper nutrition a priority.
JOAN DAVIS: We're very interested in food and health as a family. Even with our kids, I have them read the ingredients. We read the labels in the supermarket.
BRANCACCIO: As part of that healthy diet, Matthew ate tuna, lots of tuna.
MATTHEW DAVIS: I ate tuna often, about twice a day every day. It was my favorite food.
BRANCACCIO: Then a little over a year ago Davis got a disturbing call from her son's school. Matthew's performance had undergone a dramatic shift.
JOAN DAVIS: Matthew was going from an excellent student to a poor student. Things that we took for granted that he'd always done, such as, you know, excellent writing skills. They were saying he couldn't even write a paragraph-- that he wasn't focused in class. And he's always been, you know, very focused.
BRANCACCIO: Matthew too noticed changes.
MATTHEW DAVIS: Playing football. I would just have my-- my fingers, like, crooked like this. And I'd try to catch the ball or go like that. And when I'd write I'd shake. My fingers would get shaky.
BRANCACCIO: It never occurred to his parents that Matthew's problems could have been caused by something he was eating, until they saw this article in THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE linking mercury exposure from fish to learning difficulties and impaired motor skills.
JOAN DAVIS: I'll never forget it. And it was kind of like this white-light feeling; like-- like a light bulb went on. This could be our answer. Because it never made sense to us.
BRANCACCIO: To find out, Joan Davis called her son's pediatrician and asked that he be tested for mercury.
JOAN DAVIS: Matthew's first test, after stopping tuna for two months, came back and his mercury level was 12 and a half times higher that the recommended FDA safety level.
BRANCACCIO: None of this was surprising news to Dr. Jane Hightower who examined Matthew.
DR. JANE HIGHTOWER: I consider his diagnosis mercury toxicity.
BRANCACCIO: Hightower, a San Francisco internist, stumbled onto the issue of mercury exposure four years ago when many of her well-off, health conscious patients began complaining of similar unexplained symptoms.
DR. JANE HIGHTOWER: I began thinking, "Well, you know, a lot of these patients match these various and sundry symptom profiles." It's non-specific headache, troubles thinking, memory loss, joint and muscle aches, stomach upset. And so what I did was started to call people up who I knew had those symptoms, and I asked, "What's for dinner?"
BRANCACCIO: It turned out her patients had something in common; they were all eating the types of fish that tend to be high in mercury. When tests came back, Hightower's hunch was confirmed. Most had elevated mercury levels.
Mercury in the environment is both naturally occurring, from things like volcanoes, and man-made, as from coal-fired power plants. It comes out here. But mercury doesn't just blow away. What goes up comes down. It ends up here. That's a tasty fish. The bigger the fish and the higher up the food chain, the more of this kind of mercury methylmercury it can have. Humans at the top of the food chain get it from eating fish.
Forty-five states now issue mercury advisories about locally caught fish in streams, rivers and lakes, yet fisherman also are testing high.
Ed Mongin of Wisconsin went to a VA clinic for testing after he read an article about mercury in READERS' DIGEST.
ED MONGIN: I just thought, "Well, I think I'll just ask my doctor to do a mercury check on me for because if anybody's got it I got it."
BRANCACCIO: His levels were found to be seven times the Environmental Protection Agency's safe limit.
Even people you'd think would know better are getting surprising results. Like lifelong fisherman and environmental advocate Robert Kennedy, Jr.
ROBERT KENNEDY, JR.:
My levels are somewhere about double what is considered safe.
BRANCACCIO: For adults like Kennedy and Mongin, the concern is cardiac effects like heart attacks. Research is ongoing. But the greatest known risk is for pregnant women who pass mercury through their bloodstream to their developing fetus.
ROBERT KENNEDY, JR: Today, there are 630,000 children born in this country every year who have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in their mothers' wombs.
BRANCACCIO: That is one in six children at risk for neurological damage. The potent toxin interferes with the developing brain and can cause effects like lower IQ, learning disabilities, and impaired language and motor skills.
SUSAN FIERING: This is a problem that's known by the experts, the scientists, by medical people by the Food & Drug Administration, and the EPA. But the word isn't out there in the public.
BRANCACCIO: California Deputy Attorney General Sue Fiering is working to change that. In the past two years, her office has sued supermarkets, restaurants and companies that produce canned tuna fish, to force them to post warnings about the dangers of eating too much of the wrong kind of fish.
This is the warning we developed. It's got, as you can see, WARNING in bright red letters with an exclamation point and a fish behind it.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, it's pretty heavy duty. It says: "Pregnant and nursing women. Women who may become pregnant and young children should not eat the following fish." And then there's the list.
It also warns such women and children to "limit their consumption of other fish, including tuna." And further advises that "tuna steaks and canned albacore have higher levels of mercury than canned light."
So there's no doubt there's methyl-mercury in this fish that you're-- you've checked.
There's no doubt. Nobody has any doubt about this. All of these fish contain mercury and some of them contain it in very high levels and should not be eaten, not only by pregnant women, but some of them should not even-- some of these fish should not even be sold in supermarkets and grocers and restaurants.
BRANCACCIO: Just last week, the 16 major restaurant chains sued by the state agreed to settle and put up warnings. And a few supermarkets have voluntarily posted them at fresh fish counters and in the frozen food section. But the tuna companies are bucking the warnings.
SUSAN FIERING: We're now suing the three major canned tuna companies. To date, they have refused to put up any warnings in the canned tuna aisles.
BRANCACCIO: The US Tuna Foundation is challenging the lawsuit saying "canned tuna products are safe…." Citing a mercury advisory by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency that states "fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet…"
The US Tuna Foundation says; The suit is not grounded in science and will needlessly scare consumers away from affordable foods that are good for them. How do you respond?
SUSAN FIERING: Obviously they don't want the information to go out to the public.
You can imagine some people saying; Everything's now dangerous for you. I can't eat anything, so I might as well ignore the warnings.
SUSAN FIERING: I don't believe that. And I-- I guarantee you that the same corporate presidents and the same attorneys who sit across the table from me and say you shouldn't tell people this information, it's unwarranted. I'm willing to bet that they go home and make sure that their friends and family have the information. And they make sure that their children are not eating an Albacore Tuna sandwich every day.
BRANCACCIO: Some also see the hand of industry downplaying the risk in a federal advisory issued last March by the EPA and FDA on which fish certain women and children should eat. One respected university scientist resigned from the FDA advisory panel, saying the recommendations did not reflect the experts' views. He told THE WASHINGTON POST: "We wanted albacore on the list of fish not to eat….We knew that wouldn't happen because of the pressure from the industry."
An important issue since tuna is the most popular grocery store item, after sugar and coffee. But it seems only California is trying to get the word out in the supermarket aisles.
SUSAN FIERING: This is not a case of California being the crazy, wild, hippie, fruit and nut, you know sprout-eating vegetarians. This is a case of California simply putting out the word that should be out to the country.
BRANCACCIO: But why is mercury in our fish in the first place? When it comes to ocean fish, it's a global problem. Asia accounts for roughly half of the mercury pollution in the world. But in this country, American coal-fired power plants are responsible for roughly 40% of mercury emissions. Unlike other industrial sources of mercury, emissions from power plants have never been regulated by the federal government. The EPA has spent the past fifteen years debating the problem and finally is expected to announce a mercury regulation for power plant emissions this March.
JEFFREY HOLMSTEAD: We've proposed a rule that will get by far, the greatest emission reduction from power plants that's ever been achieved in this country or-- or anywhere else in the world.
BRANCACCIO: Jeffrey Holmstead, Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation at the EPA, spoke to us last summer while the agency was accepting public comment on the proposed regulation.
The EPA has been flooded with letters. Members of Congress, state attorneys general, environmentalists, sportsmen and children's advocates have all weighed in saying the rule doesn't go far enough fast enough to reduce mercury emissions.
MARTHA KEATING: The Bush proposal is too little and too late. And simply does not conform to the Clean Air Act.
BRANCACCIO: Martha Keating, a former EPA scientist and national authority on mercury now follows the issue for the non-profit group Clear the Air. While combing through the public file she found that key provisions in the EPA proposed regulation had come from advocates for industry. Specifically, a law and lobbying firm called Latham and Watkins, which represents power companies. In some cases, the arguments were almost verbatim.
MARTHA KEATING: At first, I was-- I was just so surprised. I mean, first, it was the concept. Oh, yeah. You know I'm familiar with this. And then it was. My gosh! These really are word-for-word. In many cases it provides the rationale, the basis for decisions that EPA made.
BRANCACCIO: In what may be just a coincidence, it turns out that before the man in charge of the mercury rule, Jeffrey Holmstead, came to the EPA, he worked as an attorney at Latham and Watkins. The same firm that wrote that language adopted by the EPA.
BRANCACCIO: You used to work at Latham & Watkins?
HOLMSTEAD: Yes. No, no. I-- I absolutely-- I-- I and one of my close colleagues here were both at Latham & Watkins. But-- but Latham & Watkins represents many-- many industries. And this language didn't come in through me or through my colleague. It came in actually without our even knowing about it.
BRANCACCIO: It's just that I think people would expect that industry would be a robust participant of any rule-making that involves their industry. Just-- you wouldn't expect industry to be seen as writing the language.
HOLMSTEAD: Well yeah-- no. I think that's correct. And it's something that I know both the Administrator and I were concerned about.
KEATING: I think it's a pretty dramatic illustration of the influence that certain industries can have in this process. That they can reach the high levels of-- of these administrations and have their positions not only known, not only meet with them, but to have their positions, in fact, adopted, just the way they would like them to be.
BRANCACCIO: And so far the government and industry seem to be in sync on the preferred plan to regulate mercury emissions. Cut emissions 70% but not until 2018 at the earliest.
Many experts say current technology already in use can make much greater reductions much sooner.
Are you being aggressive enough? With application of technology, couldn't you hasten that process so that it's more than 70 percent, so that it's earlier than 2018?
That's one of the things that we're looking at.
Right now, there's not any power plant in the country that actually-- has technology to control its mercury emissions. There's no-- there's no power plant out there today that has this technology that people are talking about.
BRANCACCIO: What do the states seem to know that maybe the EPA hasn't fully embraced? I know that Massachusetts and Connecticut and New Jersey are permitting plants that reduce mercury by 85, 90 percent by just 2010. That's a much more aggressive time frame than your proposed rule.
HOLMSTEAD: That-- it is, but it's a very different situation. Massachusetts, I believe, has nine units that are burning essentially the same type of coal. And we know there is a technology that can do that today. But from a national perspective, we're not dealing with nine units. We're dealing with 1,300 units.
BRANCACCIO: But, in fact, experts say, that same type of coal is used in over half the plants in the country and technology exists to cut mercury much faster from all plants compared to the EPA's more protracted, industry-friendly timeline.
Yet even if American industry were to cut all mercury emissions overnight, the toxin would still be in our food chain, given those other sources we mentioned, volcanoes, Asia and so on. But coal-fired power plants are a big place to start, say experts like Keating.
KEATING: If you don't reduce emissions, you don't reduce the amount of mercury coming from the atmosphere. And you will not reduce your fish concentrations. You have to reduce the amount of mercury getting into the environment.
BRANCACCIO: In the meantime, the bright side, if you can call it that, is that according to Dr. Hightower, you can lower your mercury levels in as little as two months.
HIGHTOWER: Mercury is not rocket science. You eat mercury. It goes up in your body. You stop eating mercury. It goes down. And I've had over 350 patients now and we've observed the same thing in every one of them.
BRANCACCIO: And that's what she advised the Davis family to do with Matthew:
JOAN DAVIS: We stopped the source. He never touched tuna again. And his levels decreased dramatically. Within weeks of stopping the tuna, I saw his thumbs strengthen. He really improved in baseball. We saw a huge difference this year in school.
MATTHEW DAVIS: I don't think I'm 100% cured. I think I'm maybe 98 or 99. I can understand almost everything now. I feel active. I can see. I can think. I feel very clear about myself.