Mercury builds up in ecosystems and has neurotoxic properties. Can global legislation benefit America?
Mercury is a global problem. Produced by heavy industry and coal-fired power plants, the heavy liquid metal causes a myriad of health problems.
Once released into the atmosphere, mercury inevitably finds itself in the waterways of the world. Once there, it enters the food chain and is converted into methylmercury, an even more toxic compound.
Methylmercury readily bioaccumulates and ends up on American dinner tables.
Policies, including the global Minamata Convention on Mercury and America's domestic Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, are in place to permanently reduce mercury's impact on global health.
A new study, using advanced modeling, attempts to elucidate the financial benefits behind these particular policies.
The problem with mercury
Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil. Volcanoes and the erosion of rock has released mercury into the atmosphere for millions of years.
Today, the vast majority of mercury is released by human activity, predominantly through burning coal, waste incinerators and mining. The World Health Organization (WHO) place mercury in their top 10 chemicals of "major public health concern."
Exposure to mercury can harm an unborn child and have substantial negative health implications for an adult's nervous, digestive and immune systems; also, the lungs, eyes, skin and kidneys are damaged by the toxin.
Effects of methylmercury exposure through diet include IQ deficits in children exposed in the womb and cardiovascular problems in adults.
Comparing mercury legislation
The Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted worldwide in 2013 and attempts to minimize the levels of mercury emissions on a global scale. The treaty, signed by more than 120 countries, aims to prevent new mercury mines from opening, phase out existing mines, control air emissions and regulate small-scale gold mining operations.
This global drive will work in conjunction with America's domestic guidelines on mercury release - the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) - set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
An in-depth analysis carried out at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, compares the financial and health benefits of the two policies in regard to the American public and their economy at large.
Tracing a policy-to-impact is a complex business, especially when dealing with such a convoluted problem. The researchers needed to consider the genesis and release of mercury, its movements through the atmosphere, waterways and ecosystems, its passing into the seas and the oceanic food chain, then finally into human diets and the consequent ramifications on human health.
Finances behind policy
The team found that the amount of mercury deposited on US soil will be comparable between the Minamata and domestic policies. Both policies, if run independently, would have a similar impact.
However, America's consumption of mercury through seafood will be an estimated 91% lower under the global policy and just 32% lower under America's MATS policy alone.
Using factors such as lost hours of work due to illness, fatal heart attacks and medical bills, the team worked out the cost implications. They split the savings into two categories.
The first category is lifetime benefits that would come from a reduction in an individual's contact with mercury. This includes fatal heart attacks and the cost of medical bills. The second category involves economy-wide benefits that include productivity gains across the nation's workforce and an improved IQ.
By 2050, the team estimates the following savings:
- Minamata Convention on Mercury: $339 billion in lifetime benefits and $104 billion in economy-wide benefits
- MATS: $147 billion in lifetime benefits and $43 billion in economy-wide benefits.
The results from the complex modeling by the MIT team are summarized simply by the authors:
"Projected Minamata benefits are more than twice those projected from the domestic policy."
However, the authors also note that Americans who predominantly consume locally caught freshwater fish, rather than globally caught marine seafood, will benefit more from America's domestic policy than the global intervention.
Author Noelle Selin says:
"Historically, it's been hard to quantify benefits for global treaties. Would we be able to see a US benefit, given you're spreading reductions and benefits around the world? And we were."
The most positive take-home message from the current project is that, on a global scale, mercury levels are being reduced. If America is set to see such financial savings and reductions in toxins, we can infer that other countries will also see major benefits.
Medical News Today recently covered research that showed higher fish consumption is linked to a reduced risk of depression.