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Our Excessive Fear of Mercury. Where It Comes From. What It (The Fear) Does to Us.
Public apprehension about the health effects of mercury FAR exceeds the actual danger. Why, and what are the health impacts of that fear!?
The Supreme Court ruling last week against the EPA’s “Mercury Rule” is a setback, but hardly a fatal blow, to the agency’s efforts to reduce air pollutants from fossil fuel-burning power plants. The ruling was about procedure, not the EPA’s authority to regulate dangerous pollution. Not that big a deal, really.
But the ruling raises a much bigger issue; the widespread and — based on the scientific evidence — excessive fear of mercury. And therein lies a larger cautionary tale about many common fears that fly in the face of the facts, and how those excessive fears arise, and the harm those worries can do to you and me.
Consider this chart, a breakout by the EPA of the relative harm that various pollutants covered by their rule might do. Notice the slices. The health benefits from mercury reduction would be so small that mercury doesn’t even get its own slice. (PM stands for particulate matter – the tiny particles in power plant emissions that burrow deep into our lungs and interfere with cardiovascular health, causing the most immediate health damage from burning fossil fuels. CO2 is carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, but not much of a direct threat to health. Air toxics are the scary chemical-named stuff in air pollution that, relative to other components, have minimal negative health effects, by the EPAs estimates.)
The EPA ran the costs of complying with the mercury rule against the actual health benefits of the mercury reduction (although too late in the process, according to the Supreme Court, the procedural issue on which they based their ruling). They estimated that while it would cost nearly $10 billion to implement the rule, the savings in human health from the mercury reductions alone – translated into dollars – would be tiny, between $4 million and $9 million. The benefits in human health from reducing the other pollutants, however, would be massive. Translated into dollars, those health benefits would be worth between $26 billion and $89 billion. The benefits of the overall rule FAR outweigh its costs.
Why do the health benefits of mercury reduction seem so surprisingly small? Because mercury is nowhere near the danger that many people commonly fear. The foundational study that determined the harm of mercury to human health, "Cognitive deficit in 7-year-old children with prenatal exposure to methylmercury," found that pregnant women who ate seafood with high doses of mercury had kids who by age 7 developed ‘subtle mental deficits.’
How subtle? According to the study, which played a key role in establishing the regulation of mercury (and helped inform the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis), less than one IQ point per kid, so subtle that it couldn’t be detected in any one child. As the authors noted, “Clinical examination and neurophysiological testing did not reveal any clear-cut mercury-related abnormalities.” They found that the actual neurotoxic effect of mercury, via fetal exposure, is so subtle that it can only be detected by studying the entire population. (In this case the population was in the Faroe Islands in the northern Atlantic, where the diet is mostly seafood high in mercury — which gets into those fish and marine mammals when emissions from power plants rain down and are taken up by small creatures at the bottom of the marine food chain, whereupon levels biomagnify on the way up to the big creatures that eat lots of small ones.)
Nobody else in the population, including the mothers themselves, suffered any detectable health harm at all. And this was from high-dose exposures, much higher than the normal fish-eating American gets.
This is no love letter to mercury. It does have human health effects, and impacts on wildlife. It is a neurotoxin, and worthy of concern. But the qualifications about just how neurotoxic it is, and to which subpopulations, are rarely included in news stories that simply declare mercury to be dangerous, a black-and-white description that serves the public poorly. It serves environmental scientists well, however, since these are people dedicated, honorably, to raising concern about such threats. They describe the risk to journalists in dramatic and simplified ways, often leaving out these mitigating distinctions, and the journalists repeat those simplistic, dramatic, attention-getting descriptions, and society ends up with less than the whole picture — creating fears that exceed the actual threat.
This process happens with lots of risks, environmental and otherwise. Scientists and others over-dramatize some threat and journalists readily relay those alarms to the public without reporting key details, especially about the degree of harm and the dose it takes to actually do that harm, leading to an under-informed public more worried about some things than the evidence warrants. And that Risk Perception Gap, as I call it, can be risky all by itself. I have several adult friends who have cut back on their seafood consumption because of fear of mercury, though it poses no danger to them at those doses, foregoing fish rich in fatty acids that would protect them from heart disease, a much greater actual threat.
Excessive worry also translates into demands from a worried public for government action to protect us from what we’re worried about, and the money and time and resources devoted to lesser threats are then not available to protect us from bigger ones. The title of the rule bears that out. Based on the actual risk it should be called the Particulate Matter Rule, but mercury is the threat more widely known and feared, so a Mercury Rule is easier to sell to the worried public.
Which makes this a teaching moment. We need to think a little more carefully about risk. We need to ask simple questions about the degree of hazard, and dose, before we jump to uninformed conclusions that may feel right, but which could actually be harmful all by themselves. And journalism needs to do a more thorough job reporting on risk, bringing us not just the simplified scary aspect of things, but all the information we need to make more intelligent choices for ourselves and the environment.
(image courtesy Oakland Museum of California)
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.