CHICAGO— First Lady Patricia Blagojevich today joined the Illinois Sierra Club, the Illinois Maternal Child and Health Coalition, mothers, and children at the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago to continue calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to revise their mercury warnings for tuna and other kinds of fish. On Tuesday, Governor Rod R. Blagojevich called on the FDA to issue a new warning that pregnant women should avoid canned tuna entirely. The Governor’s recommendation was based on new warnings from Consumer Reports that some canned tuna contains mercury levels high enough that pregnant women should never eat it. According to a Chicago Tribune report, the FDA is not planning to notify the public of this new information.
“Someone has to look out for the pregnant women out there. Someone has to look out for the moms and for the young children. That someone should be the FDA. But it’s not,” said First Lady Patti Blagojevich. “It’s time the FDA starts doing its job and issues a warning about the levels of mercury in tuna and the dangers it poses to pregnant women and to young children.”
Mercury can cause serious health problems to the human nervous system – pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children younger than 15 years of age are especially at risk. Developing fetuses can be exposed to mercury when a mother eats tainted fish and can suffer mental retardation, cerebral palsy, lower IQs, slow motor functions, deafness, blindness and other health problems. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to excessive mercury levels in the womb.
In June, the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, issued a new warning that some canned tuna contains mercury levels high enough that pregnant women should never eat it. But according to the Chicago Tribune, the FDA – the agency responsible for helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health, does not plan to warn the public of this new information. The Chicago Tribune also reported that a top FDA official admitted that their reason for classifying light tuna as low in mercury was to help the light tuna makers maintain their market share.
“Whose side is the FDA on? The tuna industry or pregnant women and young children?” said the First Lady. “They’re supposed to be on our side. But it’s big business as usual at the FDA. This is the same agency that failed to warn the public about Vioxx. About Celebrex. The same agency that can’t give women a straight answer about the benefits of estrogen. The same agency that won’t let consumers save money by buying prescription drugs from other countries. It’s time the FDA stop putting profits ahead of safety. It’s time the FDA start putting people first.”
“The more educated pregnant women are on the toxic effects of Mercury, the more beneficial it is to their health and the health of their children,” said Dr. Kisti Gibbs, Medical Director at the Infant Welfare Society. “We at the Infant Welfare Society are happy to aid in bringing attention to this important issue.”
“Our goal is to have every baby born healthy,” said Robyn Gabel, Executive Director of Illinois Maternal Child and Health Coalition. “The effect of mercury on the fetus means that babies are at a disadvantage before they are even born. High levels of mercury can cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, decreased IQ and vision and motor skill loss. It burdens our educational systems and our health care system.”
“A pregnant woman shouldn't have to worry that eating the tuna sandwich she has for lunch or the fish on her dinner table could harm her unborn child. Pregnant women deserve the facts about mercury contamination of seafood, so they can make healthy choices for themselves and their babies,” said Jack Darin, Director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “Governor Blagojevich's plan to cut mercury pollution from coal plants by 90% will not only make Illinois children safer, but set an example for America to follow in addressing the global problem of mercury contamination.”
In January, the Governor proposed a new mercury rule that would require a 90 percent reduction of mercury pollution from in-state, coal-fired power plants by 2009. If adopted, the new standard would reduce toxic mercury emissions faster and more thoroughly than the federal restrictions adopted last spring, and would achieve the largest overall amount of mercury reduction of any state in the country. On Monday, the Illinois Pollution Control Board will hold the first of several hearings to consider the Governor’s proposed mercury reduction rule. The First Lady today urged the Board to approve the Governor’s mercury reduction rule.
Mercury contamination is a nationwide problem. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule on March 10, 2005 that required coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions by 47 percent by 2010, and 79 percent by 2018. The Governor’s mercury proposal came in response to a federal mercury rule that is currently being implemented and is widely regarded as insufficient. The proposed Illinois rules are significantly stronger, requiring a 90 percent emissions reduction by June 30, 2009.
The twenty-one coal-fired power plants in Illinois are the largest source of mercury emissions in the state, emitting over 7000 pounds annually, more than all other human sources combined. Mercury is released into the air when power plants burn coal to produce electricity at power plants. The mercury is then deposited into rivers and lakes, contaminating fish and getting into the food chain.
Once mercury enters water, it becomes highly dangerous. Humans get most of their mercury from eating fish—and mercury contaminates fish in every body of water in Illinois.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has issued a statewide fish consumption advisory, warning pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to eat no more than one meal a week of predator fish (e.g., bass, walleye and northern pike) caught in Illinois waters due to high mercury concentrations.
Since coming into office, Gov. Blagojevich has demonstrated his continued commitment to reducing mercury in the environment:
o On Earth Day, April 22, 2006, Gov. Blagojevich signed into law mercury switch legislation, which creates a statewide program for collecting and removing mercury-containing switches from retired vehicles before they are processed as scrap metal and emitted into the environment. The new law requires automakers to create mercury switch collection programs, offering storage containers to auto recyclers and dismantlers, and arranging for transportation of the removed switches.
o On May 1, 2006, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director Doug Scott announced a new initiative on behalf of Gov. Blagojevich to expand the collection and recycling of climate control thermostats that contain mercury switches. Long-term household hazardous waste collection sites in both Rockford and Naperville will collect and recycle mercury thermostats through an industry take-back program. This will provide two drop-off locations in Northern Illinois for homeowners or “do-it-yourselfers” that purchase replacement thermostats.
- Focusing on retail products, three years ago the Governor signed legislation that ended the sale of mercury thermometers and novelty items. This is another step to remove mercury from the waste stream and replace those items with safer available alternatives. The legislation supported previous legislation that further reduced mercury-containing products that pose a potential health hazard by prohibiting schools from purchasing mercury containing scientific equipment for use in classrooms.
- The Illinois EPA also continues to implement the Governor’s Mercury Initiative on a variety of fronts. They include collections of mercury items in household hazardous waste collections, “green chemistry workshops” and exchanges of mercury thermometers.
- An air sampling station in Northbrook in 2000 is one of only two continuous mercury-monitoring stations in the U.S. Mercury samples are also being collected using advanced scientific techniques at several inland lakes and streams across the state.