UN Committee Recommends Stricter Mercury Limits

NEW YORK, New York, June 30, 2003 (ENS) - A joint United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) food safety committee called last week for a tougher standard for levels of mercury in food. The committee said the revised standard, which is nearly twice as strict as the existing world health exposure standard, is merited because of growing evidence of health risks from mercury to pregnant women and children.

The recommendation came from 48 scientists from 17 countries who participated in the 61st meeting of the Joint Expert Committee for Food Additives and Contaminants (JECFA), which was established in 1956 to provide safety and risk assessment advice.

The primary health risk from mercury emerges when airborne mercury falls into surface waters where it can accumulate in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water transform mercury into methylmercury, which fish absorb when they eat aquatic organisms and humans absorb when they eat fish.

Scientists have shown that methylmercury can cause brain and nerve damage and studies indicate children and women of childbearing age are at a disproportionate risk. fishing

Predatory fish, such as swordfish, tend to have higher levels of mercury. (Photo courtesy World Wide Fund for Nature)
The experts reevaluated previous JECFA risk assessments for methylmercury and recommended that the Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake be cut to 1.6 micrograms per kilograms of bodyweight - nearly half the original standard of 3.3 micrograms per kilogram.

Advocates for stricter mercury standards hailed the move and used the recommendations as ammunition against the Bush administration's refusal to support international and domestic actions to tighten standards.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) weekly standard is 2.8 micrograms per kilogram.

"The new WHO recommendations are more reflective of the latest science on methlymercury exposure risks," said Michael Bender, of the Mercury Policy Project and representative of the Ban Mercury Working Group, a coalition of 28 groups around the world working on mercury issues.

The FDA continues to "lag behind with an outdated and indefensible standard," said Bender, that allows millions pregnant mothers and children to "unnecessarily be exposed to methylmercury at unsafe levels."

The JEFCA did, however, stress that when providing advice to consumers and setting consumption limits, public health authorities should keep in mind that fish play a key role in meeting nutritional needs in many countries.

Fisheries products are the world's most common source of protein and the FAO predicts worldwide demand will increase from some 16 kilograms (35.2 pounds) today to some 19 to 21 kilograms (41.8 to 46.2 pounds) by 2030.

Predatory fish - such as sharks, swordfish and large tuna - tend to have higher levels of methylmercury.

The recommendations for tighter mercury standards comes a few months after the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP determined there were sufficient adverse effects from global mercury pollution to warrant international action.

But objections from the U.S. delegation prevented the Governing Council from adopting binding limits on emissions from power plants and other major mercury sources.

Although mercury is a naturally occurring metal, most mercury pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels in the coal-fired power plants, waste disposal, industrial processes and mining. Current emissions of mercury add to the existing pool, which is continuously mobilized, deposited on land and water, and remobilized.

Scientists believe mercury levels in the environment have increased three to five fold in the past century.

The Bush administration is wary of placing strict regulation on mercury emissions from U.S. power plants, often noting that the United States is responsible for only about 12 percent of global mercury emissions.

But environmentalists believe the United States has the responsibility to take a leadership role on the issue and criticize the administration for not acting aggressively to reduce U.S. emissions.

"These new stringent health numbers from WHO serve as a clarion call to the Bush administration to aggressively tackle the major sources of mercury pollution," said Linda Greer, director of the Public Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. fishing

Some 44 U.S. states have advisories in effect for mercury contaminated fish. (Photo by George Gentry courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Greer says the administration is using administrative rulemaking processes to undermine other efforts to address mercury generated by the auto recycling industry, the chemical industry and the coal industry.

These rules are in addition to the administration's air pollution plan - known as "Clear Skies" - which critics say would impose weaker mercury standards on power plants than those mandated by the Clean Air Act.

Coal-fired plants are the nation's largest source of mercury emissions, spewing out some 50 tons of the toxic metal each year.

Yet these plants are exempt from clean air standards - the other two large sources of mercury, which are medical and municipal waste incinerators, are tightly regulated and U.S. emissions have been reduced by more than 90 percent since 1990.

But under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is mandated to issue "maximum achievable control technology" standards for coal-fired power plants, with compliance by the end of 2007.

In December 2001, EPA said these standards could reduce mercury emissions from power plants by some 90 percent, reducing the total to some five tons by 2007.

The administration says Clear Skies would reduce mercury emissions more efficiently, by installing a cap of 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018.

Bush administration officials, and the coal fired power plant industry, believe that the technology to cut mercury emissions is unproven and too expensive to be forced upon the industry at this time.

Some Republican Senators have already argued that even the timetable in Clear Skies is too aggressive and will be too costly to the industry.