I’d like you to meet a young family: Angela, Jerry, and their little girl Becky. Angela cares about her family’s health and tries to provide them with a healthy diet, including fresh fish a couple times a week. Jerry loves the outdoors and fishing. Becky was born and developed normally, and was a happy baby.

Things seemed to be on the right track until about Becky’s 16th month, when things mysteriously started to go wrong. By 18 months, she had entirely lost the six or seven spoken words she had started using earlier. She started avoiding eye contact with her mom, and became uncoordinated, inattentive, irritable, and withdrawn. Angela and Jerry would often find Becky staring vacantly into space and biting her hands.

Nobody knew what to make of this. Becky’s doctor was perplexed, and ran Becky through some tests. The results confirmed autism and revealed the likely culprit: mercury.

Becky’s not alone. The number of children with mercury-caused problems is growing. According to new estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency, 16 percent of women of childbearing age have dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies, putting more than 600,000 children at risk each year.

Where is this stuff coming from? Coal-burning power plants are the single largest source of mercury pollution. They release over 100,000 pounds (50 tons) of mercury into the environment annually in the U.S. Once released into the atmosphere, it soon gets into streams, lakes, and the sea, where it forms methyl mercury – a potent neurotoxin. It targets the developing fetal brain and nervous system. Even tiny amounts can cause serious developmental problems, reflected in humans as difficulties in walking, talking, hearing, and writing. Fish are often found with high levels of mercury in their tissue.

President Bush’s “Clear Skies Initiative” will allow power plants to increase mercury emissions by 520 percent by 2010. In December, Mike Leavitt, Bush’s new EPA administrator, said that it is “not feasible” to determine how much mercury the chemical and power plants are emitting, nor to enforce tougher standards. (Power corporations’ generous contributions to Bush and lobbying efforts to avoid installing improved emission control equipment have apparently succeeded.) The EPA proposed allowing power plants to spew more mercury into the air longer. Leavitt’s favored “free market” approach includes “emissions trading” that will likely create toxic “hot spots.” Environmentalists fear this will delay substantial mercury reductions by a decade.

At the same time, the EPA is planning on exempting coal combustion waste from regulation as hazardous waste, ensuring that more than 100 million tons of mercury-laden waste will be dumped into the environment each year.

The federal Food and Drug Administration currently recommends that all women of childbearing age, especially pregnant and nursing women, avoid eating swordfish, pollock, mackerel, tilefish, or shark. Four ounces of white canned tuna maxes out EPA guidelines for a 120-pound person.

Forty-three states have issued warnings against eating fish species that tend to have high mercury concentrations, including bass, trout, and other fish caught in over a thousand lakes and streams across the country. And any vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury, should be avoided by pregnant and nursing women and young children.

Persistent toxic bio-accumulative chemicals (PBTs) like mercury are a serious problem in many parts of the country. To address this threat to our health and the environment, the Washington State Department of Ecology developed a plan to phase out PBTs, which build up in the food chain and are known even in trace amounts to cause birth defects, cancer, and mental retardation. Faced with a budgetary shortfall created by tax exemptions and cuts for the corporations and wealthy, the Washington State Legislature eliminated funding for vital public health programs like the PBT phase-out plan.

Environmental and public health, our food supply – is nothing safe from capitalism?

Dave Zink is a trade union and environmental activist from Washington State. He can be reached at zacd1@juno.com.