Growing up has always been scary. The transition from an awkward pre-teen phase to our nerve-racking high school years is a cherished and cringe-worthy experience of acne, cavities, and regrettable style choices, passed through generations. Yet my generation faces something far more threatening than an embarrassing yearbook picture. Growing up is more fraught than ever before because the skin cream we use for our acne, amalgam our cavities are filled with, and the coating on the awful necklace I’ll forever regret wearing for my yearbook picture are all potentially poisonous -- because they could contain mercury.
The exposure potentially started before I was born. If my mother used the wrong kind of lamp to read her favorite book at night, the wrong kind of chest freezer to preserve her Thanksgiving turkey, or the wrong kind of clothing iron or dryer for her laundry, she was unwittingly contributing to mercury pollution in our air, water and fish, which could expose me to mercury, even in the womb. My developing neurons were unsafe because mercury pollution was rampant in the US.
When I received an A in my General Health class freshman year, I learned how to eat a healthy diet; I was taught about equal food groups, proportionate amounts, and limited sweets. By this time, the dangers of mercury were well-known, yet I wasn’t told that I should limit my consumption of tuna to no more than once a month because it includes this neurotoxin. And I wasn’t told that no amount of mercury has been proven safe because I am part of a generation that is not protected from mercury exposure.
When I take my SATs this month, approximately 15% of other students around the US will not be joining me because of a neurodevelopmental disorder. They may face learning and intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, seizures, hearing loss, blindness, and more. While there are many causes of these problems, some better understood than others, for some it is because we are part of a generation that is not protected from the dangers of mercury exposure.
When I type my college application essays, I’ll be staring at the screen, nervously tailoring the document that my future seemingly depends on. Yet my future will depend on more than what I write because my laptop could contain a chemical that is known to impair brain growth. When that laptop reaches the end of its life, if I’m not careful it will end up in an incinerator or landfill from which the chemicals inside of it can escape. So as I write my essays, I’ll have far more to fear than the dean of admissions because I am part of a generation not protected from mercury exposure.
When I transition into adulthood and face the decision of whether or not I want kids, I’ll discuss different fears for my child than I’d ever imagined because I am a part of a generation raised in a time where there was not enough implementation, prioritization, and enforcement of mercury regulations. I’ll consider the risks of behavioral disorders and reduced attention levels and IQ because I am part of a generation that is not protected from mercury exposure.
When legislators and government agencies make decisions, we request they consider my generation’s future and the potential of our lives, and those that will come after. A life riddled and intertwined with the threats of this heavy metal was not what our parents had in mind, yet it is what we face. We urge state and federal governments to protect us from these dangers and allow us to live our lives free of the effects of mercury and we call upon them to make decisions to ensure that our children are the first generation that is truly protected from mercury exposure.