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Mercury Poisoning: A Parents' Revolt

Insights + Opinion
Mercury Poisoning: A Parents' Revolt

Michael Brune

On Dec. 16, the Obama administration is expected to finally release new standards for protecting us from mercury and other toxic heavy metals from power plant emissions. All of us have reason to be glad, but parents (and anyone who might ever want to be a parent) should especially welcome this long overdue protection. My wife Mary and I co-authored a column for Sierra magazine that explains why:

It started before we even brought our first child home from the hospital. Electrical sockets needed to be covered, cabinet doors secured, knives stowed out of the reach of tiny hands. We live in earthquake country, so we finally got around to bolting our bookshelves to the wall.

Like any parents, we'll do anything in our power to keep our kids safe. We know that our power has its limits, but that doesn't stop us from trying.

Getting the house ready was just the beginning. We were also determined to protect our daughter from less-obvious dangers. Well aware of the toxic chemicals that increasingly find their way into our bodies, we shopped for the healthiest foods we could find—and still do.

Of course, not all Americans have the same easy access to fresh, organic and healthy foods that we do. In lots of neighborhoods it can be hard to find decent produce. But even so, you'd think there'd still be plenty of nutritious alternatives to fast food, like the humble tuna sandwich.

Not anymore. Tuna, like many types of fish, is often contaminated with mercury, a neurotoxin that damages the brain and nervous system, particularly in fetuses and young children. Mercury in the bloodstreams of pregnant and nursing women can result in birth defects like learning disabilities, reduced IQ and cerebral palsy.

We've known about the dangers of mercury for a century. (It's what made the Mad Hatter mad.) We've also known how the fish get contaminated—primarily via coal-fired power plants, whose smokestacks spew almost 50 tons of mercury annually into the air we breathe.

A heavy metal like mercury does not stay in the atmosphere for long. It eventually falls to Earth, inexorably working its way up the food chain until it winds up in the tuna sandwich in some kid's lunch box—or on the sushi platter ordered by a young woman who's just become pregnant.

And that's where we get mad—both as environmentalists and as parents. There is absolutely no reason our kids should be exposed to this poison. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was first charged with limiting toxic air pollutants like mercury more than 20 years ago, during the George H. W. Bush administration. The technology to filter mercury from coal-plant smokestacks is widely available. But there's still no national limit on how much mercury a coal-fired power plant can release into the air. It's like debating what kind of childproof latches to put on the cabinets while the kids are playing with the knives.

This past March, the U.S. EPA finally proposed a standard that would require coal plants to keep more than 90 percent of their mercury emissions out of the atmosphere. The new rule would also apply to such cancer-causing metals as arsenic, chromium and nickel. Filtering out these poisons would prevent hundreds of thousands of illnesses and up to 17,000 premature deaths each year. It would be the single biggest measure to save American lives in a generation.

Incredibly, it might not happen. As we write this, the U.S. EPA is under attack by politicians whose first allegiance is not to American children but to the polluters who don't want to clean up their dirty power plants. Possible reason: The polluters shelled out nearly $30 million to these members of Congress who continue to vote for dirty air.

We know that it's impossible to protect our children from every possible harm. Inevitably, knees will get scraped and probing fingers will get pinched in cabinet doors, and that giant leap off the porch might end in a tumble. But to endanger our kids solely for the sake of polluters' bottom line? As parents, and as Americans, that's something we can never accept.

Urge President Barack Obama to stand up to corporate polluters and issue strong Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants by clicking here.

Eating too much black licorice can be toxic. Nat Aggiato / Pixabay

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

Financial institutions in New York state will now have to consider the climate-related risks of their planning strategies. Ramy Majouji / WikiMedia Commons

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