Health Effects of Mercury In The Environment


The element mercury occurs naturally in the environment but human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, has increased the amount of mercury to which people are exposed. Mercury builds up in fish and marine mammals that eat prey contaminated with mercury. Thus, people who eat large amounts of fish from mercury-contaminated waters can be exposed to unsafe levels of mercury. In high doses mercury is very toxic and can cause immediate illness, and at low doses — the doses people might get from a diet of contaminated fish — the health effects of mercury exposure are more subtle; for instance, developmental deficits in the children of exposed mothers are known to occur.

In December 1997 EPA released a report to Congress evaluating emissions of mercury to the environment in the U.S. and the health effects of those emissions. The full eight volume technical report can be found on the EPA website at ttnuatw1/112hmerc/merc.html. Also in December 1997 Egeland and Middaugh1 published a policy paper in Science magazine disagreeing with EPA's standards and arguing that the health benefits of eating fish ought to be considered as balancing to a certain extent, the risk associated with eating mercury-contaminated fish.

We spoke with Rita Schoeny, one of the authors of the EPA report, about mercury in the environment and how EPA evaluated the risk it poses to human health. Dr. Schoeny received a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

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