When I was pregnant with my daughter, I wrote a lot on this blog about the dangerous toxics that we carry in our bodies and that pass through us to our babies in the womb and in our breast milk.

So many things gall me about this issue. It seems crazy that we’ve come to a place in history where fish—the best possible source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is critical for a baby’s brain and eye development—is so laced with contaminants, in particular methylmercury from coal plants, that it’s often too dangerous for expecting mothers to eat.

It galls me that the onus is on the “woman of childbearing age” to learn about and avoid certain fish and, worse, it’s up to her to weigh the benefits of crucial nutrients for fetal brain development against the risks of damage to her baby’s brain—all while together as a community we give polluters nearly free rein to contaminate those fish.

It should be noted that the damage done by these toxics to developing brains is far from trivial. In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that concluded that each year in the United States, as many as 60,000 children are born at risk for neurodevelopmental problems owing to prenatal exposure to mercury. These are kids that the report described as “struggling to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes or special education.” Another study—an analysis of data gathered from 1999-2002 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—estimates that 200,000 to 400,000 babies born in the United States each year “have been exposed to mercury levels in their mothers’ wombs high enough to impair neurological development.”

Still, what is perhaps most galling to me is that most of the resources available about fish consumption, including the mainstream pregnancy books and popular expecting-mom websites, fail to mention where the dangerous mercury and other toxics come from. It is most often treated like it’s just there and has always been there—a natural occurring substance (you actually get those words a lot). No culprit, no causation. Blame the fish, I guess.

So I was pleased that Mark Bittman made the connection in the NYT yesterday:

If you’re like most people (including me, up until a month or two ago), you know that tuna and other top-of-the-food-chain fish contain unsafe levels of mercury and that childbirth-age women and nursing mothers, especially, are warned off these fish. What you don’t know, probably (I didn’t), is the mercury’s source, or how it gets in these fish.

Turns out that about three-quarters of it comes from coal-burning power plants; it dissolves in water, where micro-organisms convert it to methylmercury, a bio-available and highly toxic form that builds up in fish. The longer a fish lives, the more mercury builds in its flesh.

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  • You could, of course, eat less big fish, but there are other sources of mercury: increasingly, it’s being found in vegetables and especially grains like rice that are grown near older, and even no longer functioning, coal-burning plants.

    Bittman chronicles the “dirty and depressing” Environmental Protection Agency saga to regulate these dangerous substances. Almost needless to say, he laments, as the EPA insists that coal plants take measures to clean up our air and water—and fish, “the industry and its representatives are fighting these regulations and trying to stall their implementation with all their power.”

    After decades of delays and industry ploys, in December 2011, the agency developed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), likely to go into effect in 2015. MATS looks pretty good. By regulating mercury emissions, it also decreases many other harmful emissions—including chromium, nickel and arsenic, hydrochloric and other acid gases, formaldehyde, and soot—stuff that gets into our bodies in a variety of ways and can cause all kinds of health problems, including respiratory disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

    By reducing mercury and the raft of other dangerous stuff that coal brings with it, implementing MATS is likely to pay off in sizable health cost savings. According to Bittman:

    The EPA estimates that implementing MATS, which will cost power producers around $9 billion annually, will save as many as 11,000 lives per year while significantly reducing asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis and other diseases. These plus other factors, the agency estimates, are worth as much as $90 billion to society. Ten dollars in health benefits for every dollar spent in pollution reduction, plus an overall increase in quality of life.

    So it’s not just every mom out for herself, keeping her children away from dangerous fish. It’s not just about tuna. At least it shouldn’t be. It’s about our food and air and health—and even about lots of money.

    We all have a stake in it. And I haven’t even gotten into the climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning coal. (We do cover that now and again though.) Bittman (albeit in a footnote) reminds us that a “further unintended benefit of MATS is that by forcing the closure of some coal plants, shifting electricity production to natural gas, and so on, it will reduce carbon emissions.”

    Back when I was pregnant, I dreamed about launching a one-woman, vigilante campaign to insert information about the source of mercury—coal-fired power plants—each and every time any pregnancy book or website or hospital pamphlet discussed the dangers of eating too much fish. But then I had the baby and got kind of busy, so that didn’t happen (I encourage you to write to editors of those publications though; I did back then and I think some of the articles have improved slightly, though it’s rare to see coal pinpointed).

    However, I still do think the effort is worthwhile. There’s something about moms (and dads) that can get them riled up in new and exceptional ways once they make the connection between coal and fish and their babies’ brains. (As Bittman points out, that’s exactly why journalist and mother Dominique Browning started Moms Clean Air Force.) And I think moms—and anybody who cares about kids and public health—are right to stand up and insist on better standards for coal plants and to think more generally about what role a dirty, last-century fuel like coal should play—if any—in shaping our kids’ health and their future.