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First Polio, Now Mercury: World Unites Against Global Health Threat

Mercury is a neurotoxin that makes its way into the food chain from coal power plant emissions and other sources.

Mercury pollution is next on the list of global health threats to face concentrated action with the goal of elimination.  According to Zero Mercury Working Group, yesterday the first significant steps toward a binding treaty to control mercury pollution were announced at a United Nations Environmental Program meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, in advance of negotiations that will take place in Stockholm next summer.


The global nature of mercury pollution lies in its ability to travel long distances from its point of emission through the food chain.  In fish it accumulates in its most toxic form, methylmercury.  Zero Mercury hopes to achieve a treaty by 2013 that promotes more sustainable alternatives to mercury in products and industrial processes, with the broad goal of addressing all controllable emissions of mercury in the environment.

Mercury as a Global Health Threat

Like polio, mercury has devastating health effects that fall hardest on the youngest.  It’s a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to young children, and it can cause irreversible brain damage in fetuses.  Though in the U.S, public awareness of mercury in fish is perhaps adequate to reduce the risk of over-exposure from that source, mercury also shows up in unexpected places around the food chain including two staples of the modern childhood diet, high fructose corn syrup and canned tuna fish.

The U.S. EPA and Mercury Emissions

In addition to the Zero Mercury announcement, yesterday also marked an agreement by the U.S. EPA that would cut mercury and soot pollution at coal and oil fired power plants, with strict new rules to be issued in 2011. The action was the result of a lawsuit by environmental and public health groups along with several states and cities.  Under the previous administration the EPA had proposed looser rules in the form of a cap-and-trade system for mercury in 2005, but the courts ruled out the maneuver last year.

Mercury Emissions – But Wait, There’s More

Coal fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S., but they are just one among many.  This year – under a new administration – the EPA has moved to address emissions from other significant sources.  Writer John Flesher at reports that in April the EPA proposed new rules for emissions from cement plants, which are among the top five sources of airborne mercury in the U.S.  Last summer, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced legislation that would end the use of mercury in chlorine production.  Only four chlorine plants in the U.S. still use mercury-based technology, which is out of date, but their contribution to environmental mercury is still significant.  And just last week, the EPA proposed new rules for emissions from cargo ships, which are a significant source of airborne pollutants including mercury.  Gold mining and incinerators (depending on the type of trash they handle) are two other significant sources of mercury in the environment, which the U.N. program is exploring through the development of non-mercury products (thermometers are one recent example), and responsibly mined gold.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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