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Mercury Still A Major Environmental Pollutant

May 7, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Although a recent study confirms that a dramatic decline in mercury releases from products in the U.S. between 1990 and 2005, mercury remains a dangerously significant source of environmental contamination, contributing nearly one-third of total mercury emissions to the air in the U.S.

Mercury release into the environment has long been a serious problem.  Mercury can harm a developing fetus if the mother is exposed to high levels and also accumulates in fish populations.  Because a variety of popular products release mercury throughout their lifecycles--often in ways that are difficult to measure—there are significant uncertainties concerning the impact of mercury release into the environment.

The findings, published in Journal of Industrial Ecology, give a new perspective on the magnitudes of different mercury release sources.  The study used a method called “substance flow analysis” to develop improved estimates of the environmental releases caused by mercury-containing products and to provide policy-makers with a clearer understanding of possible opportunities to reduce mercury release environmentally.

“Mercury-containing products such as thermometers, switches, and dental products release mercury throughout the product life-cycle, including during production, use, and disposal,” sad Alexis Cain, lead author of the study and an environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Substance flow analysis can be used to estimate the mercury releases to air, land, and water at different stages of a product lifecycle.  It can also help identify actions that would be effective in minimizing mercury releases.”  The disposal of mercury-containing products has been the subject of public debate in recent years and programs have been initiated to eliminate mercury thermometers and to discontinue mercury use in energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs. There is also controversy revolving around who should pay for the separate disposal of mercury-containing switches and headlights removed from cars before they are crushed and recycled.

The study indicated that in 2000, mercury releases caused by mercury-containing products accounted for an estimated 32 percent of mercury releases to air, two percent to land, and four percent to water.  Significant sources of include emissions from steel furnaces because of mercury containing devices in autos and other scrapped equipment, from transport and storage of waste because of broken mercury equipment, from cremations because of the mercury contained in dental amalgam used for tooth fillings, and from burn barrels used for trash disposal in rural areas.

Meanwhile, a recent study of Texas school district and industrial mercury-release data, which was conducted by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, revealed a statistically significant link between the pounds of industrial release of mercury and an increase in autism rates. The study examined mercury-release data from 39 coal-fired power plants and 56 industrial facilities in Texas and autism rates from 1,040 Texas school districts.  That study confirmed—for the first time in scientific literature—that there is a statistically significant link between autism risk and distance from the mercury source and that there is mounting evidence that children and other developing organisms are more susceptible to neurobiological effects of mercury.


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