This week we bring you inside the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant. Sound boring? Not a chance. This is where the best-laid plans of activists and ambitious scientists threaten to blacklist the “brain food” your mom once urged you to eat. And we’ll be there to witness the fireworks first-hand.
Day One at the 2006 international mercury conference was a study in contrasts. In the Monona Terrace Convention Center, professional researchers discussed advances in their areas of expertise. And in an adjacent hotel, over a dozen activist groups gathered to plan a more “aggressive” mercury campaign. “Mercury,” insisted activist organizer Michael Bender, “is a preventable pollutant.” Bender apparently has yet to recognize, as a California judge did last year, that nearly all of the mercury in our oceans is naturally occurring.
The activist confab drew around 90 people — compared to an estimated 1,200 attending the mainstream conference. Bender clearly hoped to attract a bigger audience, telling the enviro-faithful: “You can do the math. We have fifty pizzas coming in, so there’s plenty … we expect more people to be trickling in.”
At the main event, scientists dined on turkey and ham subs — with nary a tuna salad sandwich in sight. Still, we found encouraging signs that our new report, “The Flip Side of Mercury,” is on the right track by connecting mercury with levels of the nutrient selenium. Scientists from Ontario’s Laurentian University presented evidence that lake fish with higher selenium levels usually contain less mercury. And a team from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee demonstrated that selenium can “bind” with mercury in walleye, essentially neutralizing it.
In this sea of sober scientists, one character stuck out like a sore thumb. Philippe Grandjean pulled double-duty as the only speaker to appear at both the mainstream and activist events, publicly claiming that the Environmental Protection Agency’s already hyper-precautionary mercury Reference Dose “is twice as high as it should be.”
Grandjean grandstanded at the off-site gathering, using language from a 2004 Wall Street Journal editorial that certain “super-greens base their misinformation” on his own “problematic study of Faroe Island children.” Refusing even to wear “super-green” as a badge of honor, Grandjean called on the assembled activists to surpass it:
My problem is that these so-called “super-greens” are relying on a risk assessment that the U.S. EPA has done. And in my mind that’s not really being “super-green.” This is like, sort of a very pale shade of green. It’s sort of like, a very sort of middle-of-the-road kind of mainstream conclusion based on the, uh, epidemiological evidence.
Heaven forbid we should base our conclusions on evidence!
Grandjean’s current crusade, first launched by Kathryn Mahaffey, involves advocating for a lower mercury Reference Dose by making a curious claim. The EPA, he says, neglected to consider that mercury is more concentrated in a fetus’ umbilical cord than in a mother’s bloodstream. But the EPA’s own description of its methods notes that “the relationship between cord-blood and maternal-blood mercury” is already “included in the determination” of specific components of the Reference Dose.
We couldn’t reconcile Grandjean’s speech with the EPA’s website, so we asked him on Monday night if his calculations amounted to double-counting. At first, he denied that the EPA ever accounted for umbilical-cord mercury levels. But in the end, he vowed to go home after the conference and “look it up.”