Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Danger Zones
distributed 4/16/04 - ©2004

Are you looking for a hot vacation spot? Try Chernobyl, site of the 1986 meltdown of a nuclear reactor.

Of course, in this case, "hot" doesn't mean popular or stylish. It means highly radioactive, which is why very few people go there. But, surprisingly, some do.

A few weeks ago, I heard about Elena, a young woman from Kiev, who rides her motorcycle into the "dead zone" around the reactor. Her website (27 pages, with many large photographs) provides a fascinating narrative of her authorized travels in the area. Her terse descriptions of abandoned cities and farms are genuinely haunting.

Elena is well aware of the risk of radiation on these trips. Whenever she enters the area, she wears a dosimeter to monitor her cumulative exposure levels.

As a general rule, the closer she gets to the reactor, the higher the radiation rates. But there are important details to consider. She knows that wooden buildings are especially dangerous (the planks soak up radiation), and that the asphalt roadways are relatively safe. Even so, she usually travels alone, because the road dust stirred up by another biker would dramatically increase her exposure.

The now-restricted area around Chernobyl may be fit for human habitation in another 600 years. Until then, only short, cautious visits like Elena's are allowed.

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A pair of public policy issues in the United States have me thinking about Elena's travels.

Part 1 -- Earlier this spring, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put out a revised "Consumption Notice" about mercury in fish. That statement gave a profoundly mixed message.

On one hand, it affirmed that fish and shellfish are "an important part of a healthy diet." It specifically urged that "women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits."

After those statements in the first paragraph, though, the EPD-FDA advisory went into detailed warnings about the dangers of exposure to mercury from eating fish. Methylmercury, which accumulates in the bodies of fish, is a powerful neurotoxin. It is well known to cause developmental problems in children, even at low levels.

The advisory says that we should never eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury. Other species were listed as safe for one or two meals a week. Some forms of canned Tuna are twice as dangerous as others. And people are advised to check with local authorities about the relative safety of fish caught in local waterways.

Pregnant women, nursing mothers, young children and "women who may become pregnant" are advised to be especially cautious about how much fish they eat.

Elena's motorcycle trips into the Ukrainian "dead zone" show that even extreme risk factors can be managed. But she does so with very detailed information about pollution levels, and an accurate dosimeter to measure her exposure.

Residents of the US don't get that sort of information about the mercury contamination of our food supplies. We get vague warnings, printed once in the newspaper, and not vivid labels that appear on all food packages. We're expected to do substantial research before we decide to eat the fish that Cousin Alex caught in the local lake -- something that most people won't do.

Part 2 -- The warning about eating fish came out at the same time as the public comment period on new EPA regulations on mercury emissions from power plants. (Power plants are the primary source of mercury pollution in the US.) Those regulations are highly controversial for a number of reasons, including charges that the coal and power industries essentially wrote the new rules, and that the new rules don't provide adequate or timely reductions in mercury levels.

A strict enforcement of current EPA rules, using existing -- although very expensive -- technology, would lead to a 90% reduction in mercury emissions by 2008. The revised rules would lead to a 70% reduction by 2018. The new proposal would not mandate a specific technology for reducing mercury emissions. Rather, it would use a "cap and trade" system where dirty power plants buy emission rights from the cleanest plants.

While "cap and trade" has been very effective in reducing power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide -- a pollutant that tends to disperse easily -- it is not appropriate for mercury. Mercury contamination tends to settle to the ground near the source. So a "cap and trade" approach to this pollutant would lead to highly polluted areas around some power plants, and much cleaner areas elsewhere.

While not as toxic as the extreme radiation around Chernobyl, the general problem of a highly-polluted area around a contamination source would be the same as what Elena experiences. But people would not be evacuated for 50 miles around coal-fired power plants. They wouldn't necessarily know how much toxic mercury is in the fish from their local rivers. Most residents wouldn't know how much mercury their own bodies have absorbed.

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I hear echoes of Elena's journeys near Chernobyl in the US's mercury issues. In naming those, I don't intended to suggest that the risk levels are comparable between the two forms of contamination. But Elena's journals do illustrate the need for clear and detailed information about where, and how severe, the risk really is. That information should let us make appropriate and realistic choices about our behavior. And the Chernobyl situation points out the profound difference between pollution that is concentrated in a specific area, and that which is equally distributed over a wide region.

The EPA's comment period on the new mercury rules ends on April 30. Your statement -- even a short one -- can help keep the new rules from being adopted.

The EPA's website has forms that will allow you to compose and submit comments on the proposed new rules.

Environment Colorado is one of many advocacy groups that will submit your comments, and that provide suggestions for what to say.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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