Toxic Waterways

Released by: Environment Michigan Research and Policy Center

Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury pollution in the United States. Emissions from these plants eventually make their way into Michigan’s waterways, contaminating fish and wildlife.
Many of Michigan’s waterways are under advisory because of mercury contamination. Eating contaminated fish is the main source of human exposure to mercury.
Mercury pollution poses enormous public health threats. Mercury exposure during critical periods of brain development can contribute to irreversible deficits in verbal skills, damage to attention and motor control, and reduced IQ.
In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed and proposed the first national standards limiting mercury and other toxic air pollution from existing coal- and oil-fired power plants. Implementing these standards will reduce mercury in our waterways and fish, and protect public health.
In Michigan and throughout the United States, mercury contamination is widespread.
• In 2010, two- thirds of all airborne mercury pollution came from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. Mercury emitted into the air falls with rain or snow into waterways, where it builds up in fish. Distributed over a wide area, just fractions of an ounce of mercury can contaminate local and regional water bodies, making resident fish unsafe to eat.
• Overall, more U.S. waters are closed to fishing because of mercury contamination than because of any other toxic contamination problem.
• One hundred and fifteen waterways in Michigan have advisories for mercury pollution, and every square inch of the Great Lakes is under mercury advisory.
Mercury pollution threatens public health
• Eating contaminated fish is the main source of human exposure to mercury.
• Mercury is a potent neurotoxicant. In the first two years of a child’s life, mercury exposure can lead to irreversible deficits in attention and motor control, damage to verbal skills, and reduced IQ.
• While adults are at lower risk of neurological impairment than children, evidence shows that a low-level dose of mercury from fish consumption in adults can lead to defects similar to those found in children, as well as fertility and cardiovascular problems.
• One in 10 women of childbearing age in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to put her child at risk of developmental damage should she become pregnant.
New EPA standards will limit mercury pollution from power plants and protect public health
• Under the authority of the Clean Air Act, EPA has developed the first national standard limiting releases of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from existing coal- and oil-fired power plants. As proposed, this standard will require power plant owners to cut overall emissions of mercury by more than 90 percent, compared to emissions from a plant without pollution controls.
• Similar pollution standards affecting other industries have successfully reduced mercury contamination of fish in local waterways.