Moms Clean Air Force founder explains how mercury poisoning works

One of the great delights of this blog is how many wonderful people I have gotten to know — from the terrific commenters who’ve made this a real community to the scientists I’ve interviewed to the writers who’ve written guest posts. One of the latter, Dominique Browning, a world-class editor and writer, has organized a new effort, Moms Clean Air Force.

They are “asking Moms to join together, to come out in strength for our kids’ right to clean air “” just as our parents fought for us, forty years ago, when the Clean Air Act was first passed.” Here’s what they will be doing:

We’ll be posting all the information Moms “” and Dads too! “” need to learn what is at stake: nothing less than the health of future generations. We’ll show you how dirty air connects to disease. We’ll give you the tools to learn what’s happening in your area. We’ll be asking for your ideas, and your stories. We’ll be organizing campaigns and meetings and an online action center to make our voices heard.

Our children can’t fight for themselves. We have to fight for them.


Browning has sent me an introductory piece on mercury, an exclusive (temporarily), that is well worth a look by moms and dads and children of all ages (just took my daughter to the circus yesterday):


I haven’t taken a biology class since high school. With all the news about the danger of mercury emissions, I decided it was time to understand how mercury works in our bodies. Now I see why our young are so vulnerable to mercury, a truly terrible poison.

The trouble begins with coal plants (see here), the primary source of mercury emissions in the United States. They spew many poisons into the air, including other toxic metals such as arsenic.

Mercury drifts through the air and settles into water — reservoirs, ponds, streams, rivers, marshes — and onto the land, where it is washed by rain into water. In the water, mercury is converted by certain microorganisms to a highly toxic form known as methylmercury. Those bacteria make the mercury “bio available” — able to be taken up by the creatures that consume it.

Methylmercury is absorbed by shellfish and fish, through their gills; it is dispersed by their blood through their bodies, and accumulates in their fatty tissue. The contaminated fish is eaten by other fish, and birds and mammals — including humans. The biggest source of mercury exposure in humans comes from eating fish and shellfish.

Typically, the longer a fish lives, and the larger it is, the more mercury accumulates in its flesh. Grouper, swordfish, orange roughy, halibut, Atlantic salmon and tuna have been identified as having high levels of mercury in them. Across the country, states have instituted warnings about mercury in certain types of fish. Pregnant or nursing women are told not to eat tuna more than once a week.

Once eaten, mercury goes directly into the highest lipid-containing organs in our bodies — including breasts and brains. Breast milk, which is packed with nutrients and high in lipid content, can contain mercury.

In addition, mercury can cross the blood-brain barrier — a nearly impermeable membrane made of high-density cells that helps to safeguard the brain. The blood-brain barrier is extremely effective at protecting the brain from many common bacterial infections, for instance. But it cannot keep methylmercury out.

Unborn babies and young children are especially vulnerable to methylmercury in their bloodstreams. Methylmercury, like many toxicants, does cross the placental barrier, and has been detected in measurable amounts in umbilical cords.

Fetuses and young children are constantly developing; they are much more vulnerable to the harms of neurotoxicants than adults. Developmental neurotoxicants can impair the growth of the brain in ways that interfere with learning and thinking.

Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages.

Once in our bodies, mercury stays there for many months, and most people have some amount of mercury in their tissues at all times.

Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system of people of all ages.

We are never exposed to any one toxic pollutant alone. We’re exposed to all of them at the same time. Some of them have synergistic effects — they cause more trouble in combination.

That’s why we have to stop coal plants from spewing mercury. Write to the EPA [] and tell them you support the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. And write to the owners of the polluting coal plants[link to our worst offenders post:] to demand they clean up their emissions. For the sake of our children.

Dominique Browning is a writer and editor “” and the mother of two sons. She blogs at Slow Love Life and writes a column called Personal Nature for the Environmental Defense Fund. She also writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review, and contributes to W, Wired, Whole Living, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. She has spent most of her journalistic career in the magazine world, as an editor at Esquire, Texas Monthly, Newsweek, and House & Garden. She is the author of several books; the most recent is Slow Love.

Kudos to Browning for organizing an important group in this critical battle.

The fact is mercury and other emissions from coal are very costly and dangerous, especially to kids: