Mercury & Babies Today, Midwives Long Ago:

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 2/27/2004

The Bush Administration has proposed new mercury emission standards that will invite industry to pour much more mercury, a known brain-damaging poison especially dangerous to fetuses and children, into our air and water. The week of February 23, 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency held hearings about these proposals — in a grand total of three cities in all America. One was Philadelphia. This was my testimony, on behalf of The Shalom Center.

Hearing officers for the EPA: Good afternoon, and in the traditional words of Jewish greeting, shalom aleichem — peace be with you.

I am Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center, a 20-year-old nation-wide network of Jews and others who draw on Jewish wisdom of the past and present to seek justice and healing of the earth. We have 2,000 members. Our Email lists reach more than 21,000 people.

As I thought about today's hearing in the light of Jewish tradition, I remembered a story from the Bible (Exodus I:16-21): Pharaoh, king of Egypt, ordered midwives to kill the newborn babies of the Hebrew women. But the midwives held God in awe, and did not do as Pharaoh had commanded them.

This is perhaps the oldest story we have in which a government sentences innocent children to death, and the oldest story we have of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The present proposal to increase the amount of mercury that industries are allowed to pour into our air and water is an act of Pharaoh, an act of depraved indifference to human life and especially depraved indifference to children.

For the economic advantage of some and the political advantage of their friends, the proposed new standards will kill children and cause them brain damage.

How do we know this? —

The EPA and forty-three states have now issued advisories warning people, especially women and children, to avoid or limit eating local fish because of mercury.

Even with these warnings, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 out of 12 U.S. women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood due to fish consumption.

The best way to protect women and children from mercury is to eliminate it from its largest source: power plants. But the electricity and coal industries are pressing hard to avoid limiting their mercury emissions, and the Bush Administration has now proposed to weaken those standards.

More than 600,000 newborns are at risk of brain damage and learning disabilities every year because their mothers have been exposed to mercury pollution. Instead of using already existing technology to reduce mercury emissions by as much as 90%, as is required by the Clean Air Act, the new plan would postpone any significant controls for mercury until 2018, and in doing so would unnecessarily endanger the lives of an entire generation of children.

The proposal also would give polluters at least 15 years to make the reductions rather than the three years required by law.

When plants are not forced to curb pollution but can buy pollution credits, it increases the chances that there will be communities where mercury pollution is more prevalent.

If it is not to fall into the path of Pharaoh, the Bush Administration must protect children's health by reducing power plant mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2008 and ensuring that these reductions occur at each and every power plant.

The Clean Air Act requires these reductions. Human decency requires these reductions. God's demand that we choose life and protect children requires these reductions.

The midwives held God in awe and refused to obey the Pharaoh's murderous orders. Even Pharaoh's own daughter took action to save a child — Moses — who had been condemned to death by her own father's command, her own government's laws.

I look into your faces, and I see people who perhaps have children, as I do; who perhaps have grandchildren, as I do; who perhaps have nieces and nephews, as I do. I urge you — like the midwives and like Pharaoh's daughter — to stand up against whatever pressures are being exerted on you by your superior officials in this government, ordering you or leaning on you to make decisions that could bring on the death and mental ruination of thousands of children.

I urge you to see in the faces of these brain-damaged children the Face of God, to hear in the wailing of these children the Voice of God.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center <>