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Mercury: A Potent Toxin

It Can't Be Cleaned Up

Mercury contamination of the environment is a result of burning coal, careless and improper disposal of thermostats and lamps, and historic use of mercury-bearing compounds.

Mercury is a persistent, bio-accumulative neurotoxin. In high doses, mercury kills. Even in very small doses, mercury can cause neurological and developmental damage to fetuses and young children. In most cases, mercury attacks the brain and the nervous system. Mercury makes you stupid. Forever.

Mercury is also harmful to ecosystems and wildlife populations. Microbial metabolism of deposited mercury can create methylmercury, which has the capacity to collect in organisms (bioaccumulate) and to concentrate up food chains (biomagnify), especially in the aquatic food chain. Methylmercury is a well documented neurotoxin, which may in particular cause adverse effects on the developing brain. It readily passes both the placental barrier and the blood-brain barrier; therefore, exposures during pregnancy are of highest concern. It may also cause adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, thereby leading to increased mortality. Methylmercury compounds are considered possible carcinogenic to humans according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Furthermore, inhalation of elemental mercury vapour includes symptoms such as tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular changes, and headaches. Kidney and thyroid may be affected.

Where Does Mercury Come From?

Mercury is emitted into the atmosphere from facilities and vehicles that burn fossil fuels, especially coal. After being emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes, airborne mercury can travel hundreds or thousands of miles before falling back to Earth through rain, snow and dry depositions. It can end up in our rivers and lakes, and can accumulate in the fish that we consume.

Mercury can also enter the environment from mercury-containing products that are discarded. Although they travel a different pathway, the main concern regarding this form of mercury pollution is the same as with mercury air emissions – eventually, the mercury can find its way into our rivers and lakes, and into the fish we eat. When we discard mercury-bearing thermostats and lamps in our trash, since 22% of our trash is incinerated, the mercury enters the air and eventually falls back to earth.

Controlling Mercury in the Environment

Large mercury-emitting sectors have acted and are succeeding in achieving substantial reductions. For example, between 1995 and 1999, the Canadian primary base-metals sector reduced mercury emissions by 40%; municipal garbage incinerators reduced by 91%; hazardous waste incinerators reduced by 79%. However, during the same period, the electricity generating sector increased its mercury pollution by 62%, flying in the face of public health, environmental integrity and everyone else's good-faith efforts to control this toxin.

Public health and environmental advocates throughout North America have consistently recommended that electricity generators be required to reduce mercury emissions by 90 per cent by 2010. This goal is widely accepted as being achievable through a variety of potential options that include renewable energy, energy conservation, switching to less polluting fuels such as natural gas, and retrofit technologies applied to coal-fired generators.

It’s time to realize that any practices that place mercury in the environment is an antiquated and destructive practice that should be cast into the past and cease to be part of our present.

Safe Disposal of Thermostats

In 2006, reacting to the health threat, Massachusetts, along with other states banned the sale of Mercury thermostats, which has resulted in a sharp decrease in the overall use of mercury nationwide. However, taking mercury thermostats off the market is only part of the solution. Tens of millions of mercury thermostats containing several hundred tons of mercury are still in use in U.S. homes and businesses. Our recovery rate of old thermostats is poor, despite the jingles being aired on some radio stations. Education campaigns alone historically do not provide significant compliance in any field. However, a bounty system that requires manufacturers to provide an incentive has been proven to multiply properly retuned thermostats tenfold.

This bill requires manufacturers of thermostats containing mercury that are sold in the state to pay a minimum of $5 for each thermostat containing mercury brought to a state-approved collection site. In addition, it requires manufacturers of thermostats containing mercury that are sold in Massachusetts to report annually to this committee on the fees imposed and to the Department of Environmental Protection on the results of the thermostat collection and recycling efforts. We must continue to take steps to eliminate mercury contaminants from the waste stream.

What You Can Do

1. Never place a mercury-bearing thermostat, fluorsecent lamp, CFL, or other mercury-bearing waste in the trash.

2. Women of child-bearing age should consider avoiding certain types of fish.

3. Tell your legislators to enact strong anti-mercury laws!


See Also
U.S. EPA: Mercury

Bills that supprt the eliminatioin of Mercury



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