Guest Editorial |

Guest Editorial

Christopher Cherniak

Here’s today’s health tip: You want less mercury in your kid’s tuna fish sandwich? Then turn off the lights, stop overcharging your laptop and shut down the hot tub. These are the behaviors that not only impact our environment, but our children’s health as well.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Geoscience confirmed that mercury showing up in tuna and swordfish off the coast of Hawaii is coming from coal-fired power plants in China and India. That’s an incredible distance, but that’s how much mercury (along with sulfur, nitrogen and carbon dioxides) is being pumped into the atmosphere on a daily basis, year after year.

In addition, according to the EPA, approximately 75 percent of the mercury emitted by U.S. coal-fired plants makes it’s way into the global atmosphere. So we are contributors to the problem as well. Here’s how:

All coal contains small amounts of mercury in its elemental form. Burning coal at high temperatures transforms mercury into a gas which then rises out the power plant stack and into the atmosphere. The mercury eventually cools, turns back into a solid and settles back down to our land and waters, hitchhiking a ride on dust, rain or snow.

Certain types of bacteria in the soil and water convert the elemental mercury into an organic form called methylmercury. It is this compound that is poisonous and capable of finding it’s way into our marine food chain, bioaccumulating along the way up until it reaches the apex predators like tuna and swordfish. This is why they have such high concentrations of methylmercury in their fatty flesh.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the health effects of methylmercury in humans includes damage to the central nervous and immune systems. The developing brains of fetuses and young children are particularly vulnerable.

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We can reduce the levels of mercury in fish by changing our behavior. According to Rocky Mountain Power, approximately 80 percent of the electricity that is delivered to your home is produced by coal-fired plants. On average, it takes about one pound of coal to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity. Reduce your kilowatt hours and you effectively reduce the amount of coal entering the furnace.

For example, I recently turned off my hot tub. I barely used it, but there it was — the pump and heater running near constantly to keep the water at 100 degrees. So I turned it off and what happened? My electricity bill dropped nearly 30 percent on a year-over-year basis! And that was during the month of July!

True, one person can’t shut down a coal plant, but if we change our behaviors on a collective basis we can make a difference. My 10 pounds of coal becomes a family’s 100 pounds of coal which turns into a community’s tons of coal spared from the furnace each month.

When someone says "why bother" using less electricity, my actions won’t make a difference, tell them that one person couldn’t pollute the earth either, but collectively, over the past century, we have (and with a lot fewer people!). There are seven billion of us, and counting, now. And we can either collectively continue to foul the atmosphere, the biosphere and ourselves, or we can collectively decide that enough is enough and play a role in the environment’s restoration and repair. One kilowatt-hour at a time.

We owe that decision to our tuna-loving-children and their future.

Christopher Cherniak, P.E. is an environmental engineer, consultant and co-host of "This Green Earth", a weekly talk show on environmental issues on KPCW.