United States Senate
Committee on Environment and Public Works
Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety
Hearing on Regional Haze and Mercury, October 1, 1998~
Testimony of C. Mark Smith Ph.D., M.S.
Deputy Director, Office of Research and Standards,
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Mercury Task Force

Introduction

My name is Mark Smith. I am the Deputy Director of the Office of Research and Standards at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Chair of our Department's Mercury Workgroup, and represent Massachusetts on the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Regional Mercury Task Force. I have been involved in toxicology research and policy development for the last 12 years.

My testimony today is derived from three perspectives: first as a toxicologist; secondly, as an environmental regulator at the State level; and third, and perhaps most importantly, as the father of a 5-year old daughter and 5-month old son. Mercury is of great concern to the from all three of these perspectives.

The most important messages that I wish to convey today are that:

1) The weight of the scientific evidence regarding mercury pollution and its toxicity is sufficient to warrant aggressive steps to reduce mercury emissions;

2) Mercury levels in the environment of the Northeast are unacceptably high; and;

3) Out-of-region sources contribute significantly to our regional problem; thus the commitments in the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Regional Mercury Action Plan, a binational effort to reduce mercury emissions in the Northeast that was endorsed in June, 1998, should be adopted nationally.

Scientific Basis for Action

First, I wish to emphasize the remarkable degree of consensus that has been reached in the northeast by public officials and scientists that mercury is a significant environmental problem in the region. This conclusion has been reached by essentially all the Northeast State and Eastern Canadian Provincial Environmental Protection and Public Health agencies. Our regions concern about mercury is based on the following:

-- mercury is toxic to people and can poison fish eating wildlife, such as loons and eagles;

-- mercury injures the brain and nervous system;

-- children -- born and unborn -- are at greatest risk; the recent Northeast States and Eastern Canadian Provinces Mercury Study noted that a pregnant woman eating as little 0.4 ounces of fish a day containing 0.5 parts per million (ppm) of mercury could put her fetus at risk;

-- mercury levels in freshwater fish in the northeast are high, often exceeding 1 ppm and ranging up to 5 ppm, well above a level of public health concern (no matter what the outcome of current debates on mercury toxicity);

-- once in the environment mercury is very persistent, Is difficult if not impossible to cleanup and can be transported long distances to affect people far from its source.

Recently, some have argued, largely on the basis of results from the Seychelles Island Health Study, that mercury may be less toxic than previously thought. This debate is not critical in the Northeast because levels of mercury in fish here are high enough to be of public health concern even if the lower risk value were correct. Nonetheless, it is important to note that I and many other toxicologists have concluded that this single study, although of excellent quality, is not sufficient reason to reduce our concern about mercury. In fact, by appropriately accounting for uncertainties in this study it can easily be interpreted as supporting current risk estimates. The fact that a second study, at the Faroe Islands, also supports current risk estimates for mercury fiber argues for caution.

In addition to potential effects on people it is important to keep in mind that mercury can also impact fish and fish-eating wildlife such as loons, eagles and otters. There is increasing evidence that mercury levels are high enough in some waterbodies to alter Irish and bird behavior and reproductive success.

In conclusion, although ongoing debate exists over the magnitude of low dose mercury risks, the available data in its entirety supports continued action to further reduce mercury levels in the environment. On a personal note, this low dose risk debate also has not altered my level of concern about mercury- based on my knowledge as a toxicologist of the risks and uncertainties involved, I advised my wife to not eat certain types of fish likely to have high levels of mercury when she was pregnant with both our children. I would do the same today.

Evidence That Mercury is a Problem in the Northeast

The evidence that mercury is a problem in the Northeast is extensive: more than 4,000 samples of fish from over 700 waterbodies across the region have been analyzed for mercury. This data indicates that mercury levels in freshwater fish often exceed 1 ppm, with concentrations reaching in excess of 5 ppm. In the region, the overall average concentrations of mercury in smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, and pickerel exceed 0.5 ppm with concentrations in many lakes and ponds even higher. Thus, mercury concentrations in many of our fish are at levels where potentially toxic doses to a fetus could occur if a pregnant woman were to regularly eat a modest amount of the contaminated fish.

Based on this data all the Northeast states and decree Eastern Canadian Provinces have issued freshwater fish consumption advisories waking the public, in particular pregnant women, to limit or avoid eating contaminated fish. In Massachusetts alone, fish from more Han 50 waterbodies are unsafe for the general public due to mercury and pregnant women are advised to avoid eating native freshwater fish caught in the state. Similar advisories have been adopted in all the Northeast states.

Actions to Reduce Emissions

Consensus has been reached in New England that aggressive actions to reduce mercury pollution are warranted both in our region and at the nations level. Toward this end a comprehensive regional plan to address mercury pollution was adopted in June, 1998 by the unanimous vote of all the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian-Premiers. This binational plan established a long-term goal of virtual elimination of manmade mercury emissions in the region with a 50% reduction target by 2003. Stringent but achievable emission limits, which go beyond current EPA requirements, were agreed to for municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators. Commitments were also made to address utility and other major emission sources and to coordinate regional efforts to promote pollution prevention activities, including reduced use of mercury In products and increased recycling of those Mat continue to contain mercury.

Numerous analyses indicate that much of the mercury impacting the Northeast is derived from atmospheric deposition. This mercury comes from both local and distant sources with as much as 40% coming from out-of-the-region The major sources of mercury emissions include municipal waste combustors, utilities (especially coal-fired facilities), medical waste and sludge incinerators, and industry.

Because mercury pollution can be transported in the air for long distances national efforts are needed to address the problem.

Conclusions

To reiterate, we in MA and others across the Northeast have concluded that:

1) The scientific evidence on mercury pollution and its toxicity is sufficient to warrant Archer steps to reduce mercury use and emissions;

2) Mercury levels in freshwater fish in the Northeast are too high; and,

3) Out-of-region sources contribute significantly to mercury deposition in the region due to long range transport; thus, the aggressive commitments to reduce mercury pollution made in the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Regional Mercury Action Plan should be adopted, in a timely fashion, nationally.