By Darren Rumbold, Ph.D
Professor of Marine Science
Florida Gulf Coast University.September marks the 50th anniversary of "Silent Spring."
In this groundbreaking work, Rachel Carson called upon the public to take action to save the environment.
Today it remains critically important that we get involved in order to protect our Florida way of life.
One threat to our way of life – and to our health – is the high concentration of mercury found in much of the fish we eat.
In September, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) will finalize plans to remedy the long-standing mercury problem in Florida. Hopefully, the FDEP will have the courage to protect Floridians, despite the efforts to the contrary by some special interest groups.Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that is mobilized through various processes both natural and from human activities. High mercury levels were first found in Florida in the 1980s, prompting the first fish consumption advisories. Today, more than 60 species of fish found in Florida waters should be eaten only in limited amounts or not at all (for a list, see http://www.doh.state.fl.us/floridafishadvice/).
Fish containing high levels of mercury have poisoned large numbers of people and wildlife during two well-known pollution events; first in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s and '60s and again, in Grassy Narrows, Ontario, during the 1970s.
While mercury levels in Florida are well below those dangerous levels, they are higher than in most other regions.
The average Floridian probably has little to worry about. But, if you eat a lot of fish because you want lean protein and Omega 3s, or if you are a recreational angler good at putting large game fish on the table, there is reason to be concerned.
Personal horror stories about mercury poisoning can be found in Dr. Jane Hightower's book "Diagnosis Mercury'' and on YouTube ("Medical Masquerade: One Man's Experience with Methylmercury Poisoning").
Of course, people aren't the only victims of mercury poisoning. Sharks, panthers and other top predators also suffer from high mercury levels.
Emissions from coal-fired electric utilities are a major source of the mercury that finds its way into the fish on our dinner tables, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue new emission standards at the national level.
Recognizing this as a global problem, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is working toward an international treaty. While the state, federal and international efforts all sound very promising, as is usually the case these days, there are detractors.
Immediately upon the release of the new emission standards, organizations such as the Electric Reliability Coordination Council began a campaign to overturn them. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a bill to prevent implementation of the rule, which he characterized as "one of the most expensive Environmental Protection Agency rules in history." Shortly after FDEP released its draft plan, an op-ed appeared in the Washington Times that offered half-truths in an argument against taking any corrective action.
As Yogi Berra said, "It's déjà vu all over again." These same tactics have been used throughout the 50 years following the publication of "Silent Spring'' to challenge regulations on the use of pesticides, use of chlorofluorocarbons and the use of lead in house paints and as a fuel additive. Yet the regulations directed to those threats have largely been successful and did not result in the economic doomsday(s) that the special interest groups predicted. Unfortunately, those lessons can be forgotten when well-organized, well-funded attacks on science – and appeals to focus only on the here and now – are designed to sway the public and, in some cases, sway resource managers.
The FDEP initially undertook an ambitious study to support its mercury plan. However, it has suddenly altered the scope of the study and is substituting shortcuts for good science. For one thing, the FDEP has chosen to ignore modern nutritional recommendations, going back to "average" fish consumption rates from 1994, rather than the 12 ounces of cooked fish per week now recommended by many health agencies. The result is a flawed plan that could leave Floridians at risk. The plan also leaves our wildlife at risk.
FDEP admits that advisories will continue for certain species even after its plan takes effect. Consequently, if you eat a lot of fish for health reasons or because you are an avid angler, you will need to continue to monitor your consumption of certain species. Because mercury is released by natural process, there will always be some mercury in fish, but we can do more to reduce emissions from human activities to reduce the risk.
If you feel it is important for you and your family to take advantage of the health benefits of eating the nutritionally recommended amount of your favorite fish (regardless of the species), consider dropping a line to the FDEP to tell them you want your "two fish," so they need to work with U.S. EPA and UNEP to get it done.
Darren Rumbold, Ph. D, is a Professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University. He conducts research on the transport and fate of mercury in South Florida. NOTE: The viewpoints expressed in this article represent those of the author and are not necessarily those held by Florida Gulf Coast University.
Darren Rumbold, Ph. D,
10501 FGCU Blvd. South
Fort Myers, FL 33965
Phone 239. 590.7527