Taxpayers End Up Footing Big Bill for Special Education Costs in Schools
Youngsters in Maine could be suffering an above-average rate of developmental disabilities as a result of the federal government’s failure to take steps needed to curb lake and river-polluting emissions of mercury, according to according to a new report released today by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine and the Madison, WI-based State Environmental Leadership Program. Mercury is a neurotoxin that strikes pregnant women and may put an estimated 60,000 newborns each year at risk for childhood developmental disabilities according to the National Academy of Sciences.
The groups warned that Maine has a number of “key risk factors” that could put women and children in the state at even greater risk of suffering the ill health effects of mercury pollution. One risk factor is that twice as many people in Maine fish as the national average; another is that fish caught in Maine lakes and rivers have higher than average levels of mercury contamination. Due to high mercury levels the State warns women of childbearing age and young children to avoid eating most of freshwater fish caught here The developmental disabilities issues associated with mercury pollution are seen as a major driving force in fast-rising special education costs for taxpayers in Maine schools which totaled more than $241 million dollars in 2002.
Judy Berk of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said: “Pregnant women everywhere have to be concerned about mercury pollution, but pregnant women in Maine are in the bull’s eye of this problem.”
Sandy Cort of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine said: “We know enough to be deeply concerned that pregnant women and children in Maine are being exposed to an unacceptably high – and almost entirely preventable – risk. Mercury from dirty coal fired power plants upwind rains down on Maine’s rivers and lakes, making our fish unsafe to eat. Mercury is a very potent toxin harming the developing brain of the unborn, infants and young children. Prenatal and infant exposure to mercury can impair learning, memory and attention and put a child at life long risk of learning problems. This is a real public health crisis that has to be reckoned with by parents in Maine, as well as the taxpayers who end up paying for the costly special education the problem requires.”
Keith Reopelle, coordinator, State Environmental Leadership Program, said: “The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed mercury rules put corporate interests ahead of our children’s health. The EPA needs to comply with the Clean Air Act and require the maximum achievable level of mercury reduction in order to remove this unacceptable risk to pregnant women and children in Maine. That turnaround at the EPA can happen, but it will not take place unless those who care about the health of women and children in Maine speak out and get themselves heard.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a regulation requiring a 70 percent reduction in mercury from coal-burning power plants by 2018 with a trading scheme that would allow utilities to buy their way out of making some or all of those reductions. Environmental groups have pointed out that the existing Clean Air Act requires the maximum achievable reductions of mercury – a 90 percent reduction of mercury emissions from coal plants by 2008 – and does not allow for the trading scheme because all plants would be required to meet a high standard of pollution control.
THE RISK TO MAINE WOMEN AND CHILDREN
A recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study measured mercury levels in the blood of women and children across the country and found that about one in six – or nearly 16 percent – of women of childbearing age have mercury levels what is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This translates to 4.7 million women of childbearing age nationwide with potentially unsafe levels of mercury and approximately 630,000 newborns in the nation who are at risk of neurological and developmental health impacts each year.
Why the particular focus on mercury pollution as an above-average risk to pregnant women and children in Maine? The SELP/Natural Resources Council of Maine/Learning Disabilities Association of Maine report highlights the following troubling indications that could mean that Maine women and children face a particularly high danger:
§ Maine’s lakes and streams are subject to a mercury pollution advisory. This is not a theoretical problem for Maine. In August 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed again that mercury pollution in Maine is a serious problem on an across-the-board basis, highlighting the fact that Maine has a statewide advisory for mercury in its freshwater lakes and rivers.
§ People who fish – and family members and others who catch the fish they eat – are in a high risk category when it comes to mercury. In its 1997 Mercury Study Report to Congress, the EPA stated that sport anglers, Native Americans, children and the urban poor are “subpopulations of particular concern because of (mercury) exposure patterns.” The EPA report surveyed many studies and concluded that “Data on fish consumption for these groups indicate that exposures for these subgroups exceed those of the general population of adults.”
§ Maine faces an above-average risk of mercury exposure since twice as many people in Maine fish as the nationwide average. US Fish & Wildlife surveys show that in certain states more people are engaged in recreational and subsistence fishing and therefore, are likely to eat more locally caught fish from mercury contaminated waters. The FWS 2001 statistics show that 10.34 percent of all people in the nation fish, compared to the higher level of 20.36 percent in Maine. U.S. Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.
The primary source of mercury poisoning is through eating fish. Developing fetuses are at greatest risk when their mothers eat fish while pregnant. However, the brain continues to develop in children up to approximately 15 years old. The most severe effects of mercury on the development of the brain in humans were documented in two catastrophic mercury poisoning episodes in Japan and Iraq. In these cases children exposed to mercury in utero suffered effects including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness and dysarthra (a speech impediment). Two large, long-term studies found that children exposed to mercury in utero, due to their mother’s fish consumption, later displayed reduced attention spans, impaired language development, reduced fine motor function and reduced memory abilities.
RECOMMENDED DIETARY STEPS
The Maine Bureau of Health states:
“Warning: Mercury in Maine freshwater fish may harm the babies of pregnant and nursing mothers, and young children.
SAFE EATING GUIDELINES
* Pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant, and children under age 8 SHOULD NOT EAT any freshwater fish from Maine’s inland waters. Except, for brook trout and landlocked salmon, 1 meal per month is safe.
* All other adults and children older than 8 CAN EAT 2 freshwater fish meals per month. For brook trout and landlocked salmon, the limit is 1 meal per week.
It’s hard to believe that fish that looks, smells, and tastes fine may not be safe to eat. But the truth is that fish in Maine lakes, ponds, and rivers have mercury in them. Other states have this problem too. Mercury in the air settles into the waters. It then builds up in fish. For this reason, older fish have higher levels of mercury than younger fish. Fish (like pickerel and bass) that eat other fish have the highest mercury levels.
Small amounts of mercury can harm a brain starting to form or grow. That is why unborn and nursing babies, and young children are most at risk. Too much mercury can affect behavior and learning. Mercury can harm older children and adults, but it takes larger amounts. It may cause numbness in hands and feet or changes in vision. The Safe Eating Guidelines identify limits to protect everyone.”
ABOUT THE GROUPS
The Natural Resources Council of Maine is the leading environmental advocacy organization working to protect Maine’s air, water, forests and wildlife for future generations.
Learning Disabilities Association of Maine is a statewide volunteer non-profit made up of parents of children with learning disabilities, adults with learning disabilities and the professionals who work with this population
Located in Madison, WI, the State Environmental Leadership Program (SELP) is an alliance of more than 50 independent, nonprofit, public interest, multi-issue environmental advocacy organizations that focus on state-level policy. The program’s goal is to strengthen state environmental movements by enhancing the organizational capacity and policy work of SELP’s member organizations through network collaboration.