Mercury Poisoning Disproportionately Impacts Latinos

by Brennan Alvarez

A new study released by the Sierra Club found that Latinos are disproportionately exposed to toxic mercury and other harmful pollutants emitted from coal-fired power plants. Much of the risk is due to the fishing habits of Latinos, who traditionally fish in local waterways near their homes for personal consumption.


Representatives from the Sierra Club warn that “Hispanics in the United States should be especially concerned about the fish that they catch, since many local waterways have high levels of mercury pollution.” Additionally, according to poll results: one-third of Latinos fish in freshwater lakes, where mercury pollution levels are significantly higher, thus increasing the likelihood of mercury exposure.

According to the report, 76 percent of Latinos eat the fish that they catch and 64 percent share what they catch with their families, which often include children and women of childbearing age — two of the most vulnerable populations at risk of mercury poisoning.

A University of California study found that Latinos tend to fish in their immediate urban communities due to a lack of adequate transportation to safe fishing areas. Fish caught in these areas tend to have the highest concentrations of mercury; as a result, Latinos fishing in contaminated urban areas consume an average of 13.9 micrograms of mercury per day (twice EPA’s safe limit).

Fish is an important staple of a healthy diet. The nutritional value of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish benefit vision, brain development, and lowers the risk of heart disease. However, due to lack of adequate information, urban populations may be inadvertently exposing themselves to dangerous levels of mercury by eating fish caught in contaminated waters.


Mercury is a neurotoxin, and is especially harmful to young children, where it has been found to impair brain development and cause developmental disorders, learning disabilities, delayed onset of walking and talking, and cerebral palsy. In addition, pregnant mothers and fetuses in the womb are especially at risk. According to the EPA, as many as 1 in 6 American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their system to put their babies at risk in the womb or through nursing.

Coal-fired power plants are the primary source of mercury contamination in fish and according the EPA, “Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States, accounting for over 50 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions.” Mercury is a significant byproduct emitted through burning of coal in order to generate electricity. The toxin collects in the atmosphere and accumulates in bodies of water through precipitation. It is then absorbed by fish through the gills, and by larger fish and wildlife that eat smaller contaminated fish. This cycle then travels up the food chain where it is eventually consumed by humans.

Reducing mercury emissions and exposure from coal-fired power plants are key components of the EPA’s newly proposed Toxics Rule, which would establish a new standard, thus mitigating mercury levels across the board. This new standard would prevent 91 percent of mercury in coal from being emitted into the air resulting in a variety of environmental and public health benefits. There are currently no emissions standards for the amount of mercury power plants emit. The Latino community together with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and other advocacy organizations has joined forces to give citizens a chance to have their voices heard through a public comments page that urges the EPA to protect healthy air and water for all Americans.

This is an issue that poses significant health threats not only for the Latino community, but for all Americans. Everyone has a right to healthy air and water, and no one should be disproportionately affected by this societal burden. It is critical that every voice is heard — visit our comments page today and encourage the EPA to protect Latinos, and all Americans from polluters to ensure healthy air and water is available to everyone.

— Brennan Alvarez, Center for American Progress intern