Abell Salutes: Maryland Public Interest Research Group

January 2004 / Salutes / Environment

For its stand against Maryland pollution: “Unacceptable.”

Mercury pollution is a major problem in Maryland. Mercury released from smokestacks contaminates our waterways where it builds up in fish tissue. When people eat fish contaminated with mercury the substance builds up in their bodies; much like lead, mercury can cause severe neurological and developmental problems in unborn fetuses and young children whose brains are still developing.

Research by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (Maryland PIRG) found that seafood consumption by pregnant women could expose as many as one in four newborns to potentially damaging levels of mercury. Coal-fired power plants and medical waste incinerators are the principal sources of mercury pollution.

In addition to the health risks, mercury pollution threatens business and industry; In terms of raw dollars the economic value of the Chesapeake Bay has been estimated at $700 billion, and increasing high levels of mercury in bay fish are damaging the fishing and tourism industries.

Mercury is extremely dangerous even at trace levels. Half a teaspoon of mercury is enough to contaminate fish in a large lake to the point where the fish are unsafe to eat.

Fortunately, people are now given greater warning about contamination problems, and emissions from some sources have been reduced—thanks in great measure to the work of Maryland PIRG.

Standards for listing water bodies as contaminated with mercury are not consistent from state to state. Some states let the public know about contamination when any amount is found; others, rarely, if at all. Prior to 2001, Maryland had one of the weakest thresholds in the country for notifying the public about potential risks from eating mercury-contaminated fish. The State did not issue advisories unless contamination reached 1.0 part per million (ppm). In neighboring Delaware, by contrast, advisories are issued when contamination is measured at 0.12 ppm.

In 2001, Maryland PIRG analyzed data from federal databases and found that if all pregnant women followed Food and Drug Administration fish consumption advice, more than one million women per year would have dangerous levels of blood mercury contamination for at least 30 days of their pregnancies.

Acting responsively, later that same year the Maryland Department of the Environment lowered its threshold for warning the public about contaminated fish to 0.5 ppm.—and every lake, river and stream in the State was found to have fish contaminated with mercury above that level. MDE issued consumption advisories for small and largemouth bass in every river and stream and bluegill in every lake.

Emissions from one major source of mercury – medical waste incinerators – have been greatly diminished. In 1999, MDE was considering new standards for pollution emissions from medical waste incinerators. In November of that year, Maryland PIRG released a study documenting the problems of medical waste incineration. The report urged MDE to expand the standards to include all incinerators rather than exempting some incinerators. When MDE issued the final rule, all medical waste incinerators were included.

As the new rules went into effect, many hospitals chose to shut down their outdated incinerators altogether. Only 10 of the 41 medical waste incinerators in Maryland prior to the new rules are still operating; hospitals that used to burn their own waste now contract for this service with modern facilities. These facilities have the best available pollution reduction technology, and negotiating the contracts provided an economic incentive to reduce the amount of waste that gets incinerated.

Maryland PIRG has also worked with individual hospitals to reduce the amount of waste they send to incinerators. National research has shown that as much as 90 percent of the waste that hospitals traditionally incinerate can safely be diverted to disposal methods that do not produce toxic pollution. After studying their waste stream, hospital administrators decided to close their incinerator and institute a waste reduction program that is now a model for the State.

There is still much work to be done. Maryland PIRG is recommending that many hospitals minimize their incineration and change their purchasing policies to favor less toxic products. While the rate of mercury emissions from incinerators has decreased, the amount of waste that gets incinerated still produces an unacceptable amount of mercury and other toxic pollutants.

The Abell Foundation salutes Maryland PIRG and its leadership under director Brad Heavner for making known the organization’s stand against the amount of pollution created by medical waste incinerators: “Unacceptable.”