Is Mercury the New Exploding Gas Tank?

by Lisa Martinovic

The most chilling aspect of the debate swirling around the EPA’s new rules on airborne mercury is what’s not being debated. 

The dispute erupted when The Washington Post revealed that the EPA buried the results of a Harvard University study it had commissioned.  The study sought to determine the public-health benefits likely to result from a reduction in the levels of mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants.  Mercury is a persistent neurotoxin that causes brain and nerve damage as well as behavioral changes. Released into the atmosphere, it accumulates in rivers, lakes and oceans, concentrating in the fish we then eat. According to the National Academy of Sciences, at least 60,000 newborns each year could be at risk for learning and developmental problems as a result of mercury exposure in utero.  

The Harvard team, working with an EPA scientist, calculated that the stringent regulation of mercury emissions would generate health savings 100 times greater than what the new EPA report claims.  The argument has rapidly devolved to one in which dueling bean-counters quibble over the details of a cost-benefit analysis.  To wit:  If the mercury controls would generate a $5 billion per year health payoff, the EPA might consider them.  If they only add up to $50 million, well, it’s just not worth what it would cost industry to clean up their plants at anything better than a glacial pace.

But there’s something missing in this debate.

Absent from all the focus on number-crunching is any critical questioning of the commodification of life itself, and of its logical extension: the weighing of human life against profits. 

I searched the Post article for some mention of the human cost of mercury poisoning–expressed in human terms.  What of the anguish suffered by the mother who gives birth to a deformed baby, the extra burdens of raising a child with ADD, the lifelong challenges and discrimination faced by the developmentally disabled? 

I searched in vain.

Knowing that mercury inflicts the greatest injury to developing fetuses, I waited for an intervention from our sanctity-of-life President, he who is dedicated to ensuring that every zygote lives to see the light of a hospital delivery room. 

I’m still waiting.

I did hear President Bush proclaim:  “This is a complex case with serious issues, but in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wisest to always err on the side of life.”  Then I heard his White House spokesman say that the legislation passed pursuant to this admirable sentiment  “was narrowly tailored to address [the Terri Schiavo] case.”

Likewise oozing selective compassion, Congress will move judicial mountains—and even their vacations—in the effort to give a single brain dead woman the opportunity to vegetate for another 15 years.  Yet these same legislators aren’t lifting so much as an eyebrow to stop the utility giants from sentencing tens of thousands of American children to live out their lives in a persistent brain-damaged state. 

Long ago, perhaps around the time we were demoted from citizens to consumers, humanity was translated into so many digits on insurance company charts.  Digits plugged into mathematical equations, divisible by the lowest common denominator: money, the construct by which we measure all worth.  In the EPA-sponsored study, for example, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis used a cost-of-illness approach to estimate that the value of one lost IQ point is approximately $16,500—over a lifetime.

Back in the 1970’s, the nation was appropriately outraged when we learned of a similar calculation made by actuaries at Ford Motor Co.  After discovering that the gas tank on their new compact car, the Pinto, had a high risk of exploding on impact, Ford decided against spending $11 per car to make the gas tanks safe.  To do so would have cost $137 million, versus the predicted $50 million in compensation for those killed or seriously burned by their defective cars.

It was more cost-effective to let people burn. 

Some thirty years later, the monetary valuation of human life is a given.  As a society we have acceded to the notion that life is only worth saving if it doesn’t cost too much; that is, if it doesn’t impinge unduly on corporate profits.

Outrage over the Pinto was not because 10 or 20 or 100 people were sacrificed on the altar of Ford’s bottom-line.  Rather, we found it unconscionable for even one person to die when it was so demonstrably preventable–by people who chose instead to err on the side of death.

It’s not hyperbole to think of our brain-damaged mercury victims as collateral damage, but it is inaccurate.   On the battlefield, collateral damage refers to the unintended casualties of war. Here in America, our bombs are invisible and silent, with a long fuse.  We don’t know on whose dinner plate they will land, or whom they will maim, only that they will take prisoners.

At the EPA, and in the corporate boardrooms of America, our casualties are counted in advance. And no one—not the President or the EPA or our mainstream media–is calling them what they really are:  “acceptable losses” in the endless pursuit of profit uber alles.

Because those who stand to profit (politically or economically) have been allowed to frame the debate, the truth is not named and difficult questions go unasked; Congress will not be called into special session to speechify against this evil, which will continue to fly unchecked below the radar of public consciousness.

And so, conveniently swaddled in a cocoon of ignorance, we no longer rail at the decision to let people burn.  We merely ask:  How many?


This essay originally appeared on April 4, 2005