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Mercury Linked to Illness and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: One Family’s Story

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By Sarah Kellogg

Ann Arbor News Bureau

WASHINGTON – As Barbara Weiss of Ann Arbor watched one after another of her children fall sick three years ago, she couldn’t imagine that she had anything to do with their illnesses. But she did.

Looking back, the health-conscious Weiss recalls serving her family fresh fish such as salmon, shark and swordfish, three or more times a week after they moved to Ann Arbor from Oakland County.

Only after a doctor told her that her children had elevated levels of mercury in their systems did she wonder whether the “healthy” fish she was feeding her family was connected to her children’s illnesses.

“With hindsight, I realize that I should have been more aware of the restrictions on eating fish,” said Weiss. “My understanding was you had to eat a lot of fish to have a problem. I didn’t realize you could eat a normal amount of fish and get sick.”

Monday, Weiss will be paying particularly close attention to the news from Washington, waiting to see what the Bush administration will do about regulating mercury emissions from U.S. power plants.

The nation’s utilities emit about 48 tons of the toxic metal each year. Mercury vapors come from burning coal, which is used to generate electricity. Those vapors then contaminate waterways, eventually traveling up the food chain from fish to people.

Public health experts remain divided about the benefits of eating fish. While public health advisories often warn families to avoid too much fish for pregnant women and small children due to mercury contamination, some fish consumption might be warranted for adults looking for its heart-healthy benefits.

Environmentalists say anything shy of a 90 percent reduction in emissions nationally by December 2007 is a failure. And they say it would be another example of the Bush administration kowtowing to utility companies.

An early draft of the proposed rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a 40 percent reduction by 2010 and a 68 percent reduction by 2018.

“We have truly come to realize that mercury is a very dangerous public health threat in the United States,” said Michael Shore of the Environmental Defense Fund, a nationwide environmental group. “We know that mercury escapes from smokestacks, especially from power plants. The Bush mercury proposal puts a whole new generation of children at risk.”

Michigan utility companies call a 90 percent reduction by 2007 nearly impossible. Power plants account for about 2,500 pounds of the 5,000 pounds of mercury emitted annually in Michigan.

“If you want to get down to a 90 percent number from coal plants, there are isolated cases where you can do it,” said Lou Pocalujka, senior environmental planner for Consumers Energy Co., which operates four coal-fired power plants in Michigan and serves customers in Livingston and Washtenaw counties. “On a broad scale, it isn’t going to happen.”

Pocalujka says there are two ways to reduce emissions – switch to cleaner-burning fuels such as natural gas or develop new technologies to clean exhaust from the stacks. Neither of those options can be in place by 2007 for cost and logistical reasons, he says.

The Bush administration will be accepting comments on the proposed rules from environmentalists and the energy industry in the coming months. The final rules are expected to be put in place by December 2004.

The current debate over mercury started in 2000 when the Clinton administration decided to regulate mercury from coal-fired plants to the maximum extent that was technologically possible. It also decided to do it on a plant-by-plant basis, where every facility would have to make the standard. The rules, however, were never proposed.

The proposed Bush standard isn’t expected to be as strict, and it would be applied nationally, as an average of all plants. In addition, utilities would be able to trade “mercury credits” so that plants with lower mercury levels could sell their credits to plants with higher emissions.

While that may ease the financial burden on companies, many of which have spent hundreds of millions in recent years to meet air quality standards, it could increase the impact of mercury on the public’s health, say environmentalists.

“There’s some pretty clear evidence of what higher levels of mercury exposure can do in terms of headaches, memory loss, developmental delays for children,” said Zoe Lipman, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Office of the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group. “The problem is people don’t often think they have a mercury problem until they’re experiencing some severe symptoms.”

Weiss agrees, noting that mercury was the last thing on her mind as her children became progressively more ill.

Ayla, her eldest daughter, suffered from a series of sore throats that led to her tonsils being removed and ultimately to her being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Sixteen-year-old Sari developed frequent headaches and severe joint pain in her jaw. And Andrew, who is 13, suffered numerous joint pains, especially in his ankles.

But it was Ayla’s constant series of illnesses that brought the family to the doctor. He tested her for mercury and found very high levels. The rest of the family was tested and showed similarly high levels.

“It certainly seemed like it was reasonable to say that the mercury was either a major or a contributing factor to their symptoms,” said Dr. Jay Sandweiss, an Ann Arbor osteopathic physician who treats the Weiss family.

Lipman says the Weiss family story illustrates the real dangers of mercury in everyday lives and highlights the need for the federal government to do as much as it can to pressure companies to clean up their power plants.

Utility officials say the problem is a lot more complicated than it looks. There are no easy answers since mercury is found and produced globally, thus reducing emissions from one plant does not guarantee that mercury in a local community is reduced overall.

“We’re in total agreement that we should reduce our mercury emissions as a company,” said Skiles Boyd, director of environmental management and resources at DTE Energy, which operates five coal-fired plants in Michigan. “We have been reducing them over the years because of our switch to lower-sulfur coal.

“We need to continue and do it in a way that basically results in actual reductions in exposure for individuals and in a way that doesn’t cost our customers a tremendous amount more for their electricity.”

At this point, any reduction would suit Barbara Weiss. Today her family continues to recover from its mercury exposure – and eats a lot less fish.

Still, 20-year-old Ayla remains ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. Having been accepted to the Pittsburgh Ballet School before her illness, her fledgling career in ballet has been put on hold.

“I hope there will be more of a move toward regulation of the industry that is polluting the waters,” said Weiss. “That’s really my hope. But I think it’s going to take people like me becoming aware to force the government and the utilities to do something about it.”

© 2003 Ann Arbor News

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