Wrong on Terrorism, Wrong on Mercury

What do al Qaeda and mercury pollution have in common?

The answer: Clinton appointees who did little about them are now claiming in political TV ad campaigns1,2 that, thanks to George Bush, both threaten your health.

Al Qaeda’s terrorist threat is real. On the other hand, current levels of mercury pollution – despite the activist-induced hype about them in the media – scarcely stand a chance of harming your health.

Richard Clarke recently blamed President Bush for the 9/11 attacks, saying Bush “ignored terrorism for months,” although Clarke himself served as the nation’s anti-terrorism chief for years before and during the al Qaeda attacks, under both Presidents Clinton and Bush.

Carol Browner, Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, is helping anti-Bush activists promote TV ads that contend the President is blocking a national cleanup of mercury pollution from power plants. However, Browner herself never imposed a crackdown on power-plant mercury emissions during the eight years she ran the EPA.

The Bush Administration, by contrast, proposed a plan to cut such mercury emissions 40 percent by 2010, and 70 percent by 2018.3

Not that another mercury crackdown matters as much as people are being led to believe. Harvard researchers recently failed to find any mercury-related health effects among regular consumers of swordfish, the most likely source of mercury exposure among Amer-icans.4

Among Seychelles Islanders in the Indian Ocean, who have little to eat except mercury-contaminated fish, the Rochester School of Medicine found no adverse mercury impacts among children.5 In fact, there’s only one case of fish causing mercury poisoning in the scientific literature: At Japan’s Minamata Bay, where tons of industrial mercury wastes were dumped into the water for more than 20 years. 46 people died and hundreds were sickened by this heavy, localized pollution.6

In an earlier era, people were exposed to mercury poisoning in some factories. While there have been reports of kids getting dangerous exposures after stealing cans of mercury from their high school science labs, the exposure of Americans to mercury has been radically cut by the industrial cleanup that followed passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, popularly known as the Clean Water Act.

That mercury cleanup, in fact, was one of the reasons for today’s larger populations of fish-eating eagles and ospreys. (It also helps that we’ve stopped shooting and poisoning those raptor birds, as we did for 200 years when we thought of them as competitors for our food.)

The EPA has since cut remaining mercury emissions about 50 percent through regulations on municipal, medical and hazardous waste incinerators.

The EPA itself, during the Clinton Administration, said: “People who consume average amounts of a variety of commercially available fish as part of a balanced diet are not likely to consume harmful amounts of mercury.”7 And the EPA is not an organization to minimize a juicy health risk.

Then why frighten people about eating fish? The heart health benefits of eating omega-3 fatty acids in fish argue strongly that the Catholic Church had a good nutritious idea when it demanded its faithful eat fish instead of meat every Friday.

The real public danger here is that a politically-motivated fish/mercury scare will frighten people away from healthful diets, including heart-healthy fish with tiny traces of mostly natural mercury, and plenty of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables protected by safety-approved pesticides.

President Bush’s policies are not the danger here. The danger is that we will listen to his critics.

Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. 


1 Jimmy Moore, “ Uses Richard Clarke Testimony in New Anti-Bush Ad,” Talon News, March 26, 2004, available at as of March 26, 2004.

2 “Bush’s Next Arsenic? MoveOn.Org, Ex-EPA Chief Carol Browner and Experts to Oppose Mercury Cleanup Delay – MoveOn.Org to Unveil New Television and Print Ad Campaign,” press release,, March 23, 2004, available online at as of March 26, 2004.

3 “New Power Plant Rule to Achieve Largest Emission Reductions in a Decade,” press release, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., December 4, 2003, available at as of March 26, 2004.

4 Steven Milloy, “FDA Mercury Warning Based on Junk Science, Experts Say,” Environment News, Heartland Institute, Chicago, Illinois, February 1, 2004, available at as of March 26, 2004.

5 “Commercial Fish: Eat Up, Despite Low Levels of Mercury,” University of Rochester, August 26, 2004, available at as of March 26, 2004.

6 “Mercury in Medical Facilities: Minamata Disease,” Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., available at as of March 26, 2004.

7 “Mercury Emissions and Electric Utilities,” Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., February 24, 1998, available at as of March 26, 2004.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.