It is often said that the safest place in the world is our mother's womb. Tragically, because of mercury poisoning, this may no longer be true. But now we can really do something about it.
Seven hundred thousand American babies - one out of six - are born annually with harmful levels of mercury in their blood and begin their lives with mercury poisoning. Unlike other environmental problems, this one - caused mostly by emissions from coal-burning power plants - could be solved relatively easily and affordably.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage and serious developmental disabilities - especially in fetuses and infants - and leads to lowered intelligence and learning problems throughout life. Mercury poisoning is not just about the environment; it is also about the life and health of our children.
As an Evangelical Christian, I believe that each life is of infinite worth to God and should be to us as well. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor and treat others as we would want to be treated. Protecting the unborn and children from mercury poisoning is in keeping with Jesus' commands.
The cause of mercury poisoning is you and me: our need for cheap energy. The mercury is emitted from coal-burning power plant smokestacks. It falls from the air, polluting waterways and contaminating fish. Expectant mothers eat the fish. The mercury accumulates in the mother's blood and circulates across the placenta to the unborn child. There are now mercury fish-catch warnings in all 50 states.
I live in a low-income community in Illinois, and I love fishing, as do my neighbors who fish regularly to provide protein to their families. I remember catching a big fish in one of our local rivers. I was getting ready to throw it back when a man walked up and asked for it, to feed his family. I explained that a fish this big was full of toxic mercury, which would hurt his children. It's OK, he said; they need the food. I ended up giving him the fish, but no, it is not OK. Not in my community. Not in America. Not anywhere.
Why can't our families eat the fish from our own rivers and lakes without risking mercury poisoning? Is this the inheritance my generation and future generations are being left with? I understand that we live in a complicated world, but this is morally wrong. It is sinful.
So what can we do?
First, mothers can limit the amount of fish they eat during pregnancy. This does not solve the problem, but it does help protect children during their most vulnerable stages. Look online for your state's mercury guidelines.
Second, we can limit the domestic mercury pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants. Studies show that this has a measurable positive health impact. The more responsible energy utilities are already using cost-effective technologies to fully clean up mercury emissions.
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally issued preliminary new mercury standards this spring, ensuring that the rest of the energy industry follows suit and effectively reduces mercury emissions from coal-fired utilities by 90 percent.
The problem is that many in Congress are vigorously opposing the EPA on behalf of fossil-fuel special interests that do not want to pay to clean up their pollution. This is inexcusable, and we must contact our elected officials and demand that they protect our unborn children by not opposing the EPA's efforts to limit mercury pollution. The Evangelical Environmental Network (www.creationcare.org/mercury) has been working with church leaders around the country to do just this. Please join in!
Here is the bottom line: We have a responsibility to protect life, and that means getting serious about mercury poisoning. As a young Evangelical Christian, I am very grateful that the EPA and many in the energy and faith communities are working together to protect life and create a healthier country for me and for my children to inherit. They have my prayers.
Ben Lowe is the author of "Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation" and is director of young adult ministries for the Evangelical Environmental Network. He ran for Congress in 2010 and is from Glen Ellyn, Ill. You can comment on this column at www.blueridgepress.com.