The Huge Hidden Benefit Of The EPA's Mercury Rule: Smarter Kids

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 23 2011 11:07 AM

The Huge Hidden Benefit Of The EPA's Mercury Rule: Smarter Kids

I think many of the people lauding the new EPA mercury pollution rule are badly underselling one of the biggest benefits of the new policy. This is true even of the people who think the benefits are being undersold! Here's Kevin Drum, for example:

The EPA may be underestimating the benefits of the new rules. As Michael Livermore points out, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin for small children, and the EPA's analysis of that danger is limited to quantifying lost future earnings due to lower IQ. But even a grinch wouldn't pretend that the cost of this kind of neurological damage is limited to lower wages.

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It's much worse than that! The EPA's official analysis of the impact of mercury on kids' brains is limited to the impact on wages of children born to families that catch freshwater fish for their own consumption. The impact they find is, not surprisingly, pretty small since most families don't each much self-caught freshwater fish. But the entire analysis simply skips the impact of mercury toxins ingested through commercial fishing which, obviously, is the vast majority of the fish that people eat. They did it this way because it's extremely difficult to trace oceanic mercurity to specific power plants and because the rule (easily) passes cost-benefit scrutiny for separate reasons so there was no need for the EPA to produce a guesstimate about it. But a 2005 study that attempted to quantify this estimated $8.7 billion per year in lost wages wages due to mercury-related IQ loss. There is huge potential low-hanging fruit here to build an entire better next generation of Americans, but this entire subject was completely excluded from the EPA's analysis which is overwhelmingly focused on the respiratory impact of particulate inhalation. That's a big deal. It means less asthma, thousands fewer premature deaths from older people, etc. But the main channel through which mercury does neurological damage to infants and fetuses is basically neglected for technical reasons.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.