Methylmercury, Fish Consumption, and the Precautionary Principle

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This paper considers several broad issues in the context of probabilistic assessment of the benefits of curtailing mercury (Hg) emissions from U.S. coal fired power plants, based on information developed from recent literature and epidemiology studies of health effects of methylmercury. Exposure of the U.S. population is considered on the national scale, in large part because of recent questions arising from survey and experimental data about the relative importance of local deposition of airborne Hg. Although epidemiological studies have provided useful information, safe levels of Hg exposure remain uncertain, in part because of other dietary considerations in the populations that were studied. For example, much of the seafood consumed in one of the major studies was also contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, as are fish taken from some U.S. fresh waters. The primary epidemiological approach involves cross-study comparisons in relation to mean exposures, rather than detailed critiques of individual effects reported in each study. U.S. exposures are seen to be well below the levels at which adverse health effects are reported. This analysis supports the conclusion that unilateral reduction of Hg emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants alone is unlikely to realize significant public health benefits.

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