Published on December 1st, 2013 | by Don Lieber
Mercury — #7 In "Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries" Series
This is part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow for the next part, which will focus on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin. It damages the brain and the nervous system either through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with the skin. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. It is known to disrupt the development of the in-vitro brain. In low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span, and causing learning disabilities. High dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss, and numbness of the fingers and toes.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of airborne mercury emissions in the United States. The mercury emitted from such plants can travel thousands of miles; scientists recently linked the chemical fingerprint of mercury found in fish in deep portions of the Pacific Ocean to coal power plants thousands of miles away in Asia.
Here in the US, many of the largest coal-powered power plants are located within 50-100 miles of some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, including Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Austin.
One out of every six women of childbearing age in the US have blood mercury levels that could be harmful to a fetus, according to EPA reports. The EPA estimates that 300,000 children are born each year at risk for significant development disorders due to mercury exposure.
You may not hear references to mercury in the television ads speaking about “clean coal.” But it’s in there, too.
Note From The Author
There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.
History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.
In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.
Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.
It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.
The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.
This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.
New York City
Image Credit: coal power plant pollution via Shutterstock
Stay tuned for the remaining 6 of the top 10 toxic ingredients used by the fossil fuel industries.