New Mercury Rules Even Better Than You Thought

| Fri Dec. 23, 2011 12:21 PM EST

Earlier this morning I wrote that even with estimated benefits of $90 billion per year, the EPA may be selling short its new rules limiting emissions of mercury and other airborne toxins. (Most of that $90 billion estimate is due to reductions in particulate matter, not mercury.) After all, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin, and the cost of cognitive and social defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks goes beyond just the EPA's estimate of lost earnings due to lower IQs.

All true. But Matt Yglesias says that even I'm underestimating the benefits of the new rules:

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 mercury 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.

So there you go. President Obama's early Christmas present was even better than you thought. Ho ho ho.