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Did the White House Just Put Us at Greater Risk for Mercury Poisoning?

The White House is rolling back environmental and public-health regulations put in place in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, and non-governmental organizations are fighting back.

By Kate Wheeling


Fresh Red Snapper lies on ice at the San Francisco Fish Company. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Wednesday morning, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for rolling back a regulation meant to protect the public from exposure to mercury, a potentially dangerous neurotoxin.

Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump went after several regulations put in place in the final weeks of the Obama administration. On January 20th, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, told federal agencies to rescind any finalized regulations that had been submitted to the Federal Register—a governmental rulebook of sorts—but not yet published there, which included the mercury rule limiting the amount of the metal that could be discharged by dentists. The NRDC is arguing in the lawsuit that the EPA can’t just roll back the rule without public notice or a comment period.

“The Trump White House ordered the EPA and other agencies to violate the law,” the NRDC’s litigation director, Aaron Colangelo, said in a statement. “That puts Americans at greater risk of exposure to this dangerous neurotoxin, which can do harm even in tiny amounts.”

There are many sources of mercury pollution: coal-fired power plants, mining operations, and the dental industry, to name just a few. When dentists wash fillings—which contain mercury among other metals—down the drain, the mercury becomes converted into a more toxic form called methylmercury in our waterways. The toxin is ingested by fish, which can be caught and served to people who would then be unknowingly eating high levels of the metal. Methylmercury exposure is particularly harmful to early brain development, and prenatal exposure is linked to learning disabilities.

The regulation in question required that dental offices install something called “amalgam separators” to reduce mercury discharge if they didn’t have such equipment already—roughly 40 percent do. The installation would cost only about $800 per office, according to the NRDC, and, coupled with other specific “best management practices” outlined by the rule, would reduce mercury discharge by 5.1 tons a year.

Many states already have varying regulations to reduce mercury discharge, and the federal rule enjoyed widespread support from both environmental groups and the American Dentistry Association, which called the federal rule “preferable to a patchwork of rules and regulations across various states and localities.”

“[The] EPA’s withdrawal of the mercury rule is not just illegal, but senseless,” Colangelo said. “The rule imposes minimal burden, drew widespread praise from dental providers and benefits public health and the environment.”

Trump’s pick to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has a history of hostility toward mercury regulations. Pruitt has sued the agency more than a dozen times in the past, including a suit to block a 2011 rule limiting mercury pollution from coal plants.