Mercury Q & A
Mercury, sometimes called quicksilver, is a potent neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to children. But it’s also a fascinating chemical element. Here is a scientific overview of this complex substance–along with information about why mercury emissions must be regulated.
MERCURY AT A GLANCE
- The Clean Air Act was passed decades ago to reduce the amount of dangerous pollution in our air.
- In the last few months, the Environmental Protection Agency has released several updated standards under the Clean Air Act.
- The most recent of those new standards, and among the most important — are the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards which were issued on December 16, 2011.
- The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards put the first-ever national limits on hazardous air pollutants from power plants. Those pollutants include mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxin and acid gases.
- Half of the mercury in our air comes from coal-burning power plants. The new EPA rules would require plants to filter the mercury before it gets emitted into the air. It took EPA more than 20 years to finally adopt these standards.
- Mercury is one of the most toxic poisons known to science. Ingesting even small amounts of it can cause a long list of serious health threats.
- In adults, high level mercury exposure can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.
- But it’s a much bigger danger to babies and children. Mercury exposure can cause brain damage in infants. Mercury can affect children’s ability to walk, talk, read and learn.
- One in ten American women of child-rearing age has potentially dangerous levels of mercury in her bloodstream.
- More than 400,000 American babies are born every year having been exposed to unsafe levels of mercury while in the womb.
- The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will save up to 11,000 lives a year, according to EPA. It will also prevent up to 120,000 asthma attacks.
- We’re mostly exposed to mercury through eating fish. The mercury we spew into the air falls back to the ground – into our rivers and lakes. It gets into our fish – and then we eat the fish. That’s why doctors warn pregnant women not to eat too much tuna.
- All 48 of the continental United States had mercury fish consumption advisories in effect as of March 2011. That includes the entire Great Lakes region.
- The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are being challenged – in the courts, and in Congress. Opponents claim it will be too expensive for power plants to comply with the standards. BUT – lots of power plants around the country have already installed scrubbers or other cost-effective technologies to reduce their toxic pollution. They’re already in compliance.
- The mercury rule levels the playing field for the power companies that have already made — or are starting to make — investments to modernize their plants to protect our children’s health. AND – the same opponents have claimed other Clean Air Act standards were too expensive, and they have always been proven wrong. The overall benefits from the Clean Air Act have outweighed the costs by 30-to-1.
- The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards alone will provide up to nine dollars in public health benefits for every dollar invested.
- Attacks against the Clean Air Act continue though – unfortunately. For instance, on Capitol Hill, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma has introduced legislation that is so extreme … it would not only wipe out the mercury rule for power plants, it would also make it impossible for another substantially similar rule to be issued – ever again.
- Clean air is critical for human health. Mercury is poisonous. We have the ability to get it out of our air. There’s no excuse for not doing it. We need to support the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.
WHAT IS MERCURY?
I don’t remember a thing about high school chemistry. What is mercury? And why should I care about it?
I keep hearing that mercury is “natural”– so how can it be bad for us?
Mercury’s main target organ is the brain and it adversely affects the function and development of the central nervous system. It also affects heart, kidneys, lungs, muscles, reproductive and digestive organs, and our genetic and immune system. Learn more about mercury poisoning.
Next time a politician tells you that mercury can’t be bad for you because it is natural, remember, nature is full of toxic chemical elements. Remind that person about aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, and lead–just for starters.
Lots of natural things are toxic–if the dose is high enough. But with mercury, the toxic dose is tiny.
I remember breaking open thermometers and playing with that strange quicksilver that rolled up into balls. Does all mercury look like that?
Elemental mercury ↔ Oxidized mercury (Inorganic) ↔ Methylmercury (Organic)
Elemental or metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white metal; it is mostly liquid at room temperature. It is often called “quicksilver”. It is used widely in thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs and some electrical switches. When dropped, elemental mercury breaks into smaller droplets. They can go through small cracks or become strongly attached to certain materials.
At room temperature, exposed elemental mercury can evaporate to become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor.
This vapor has a very long life (up to one year) in the air.
Once released into the wider atmosphere, elemental mercury can travel thousands of miles and becomes part of a global pool of atmospheric mercury.
Oxidized inorganic mercury or ionic mercury compounds take the form of mercury salts and are generally white powder or crystals, with the exception of mercuric sulfide (cinnabar), which is red.
Inorganic mercury compounds have been included in products such as pigments, fungicides, antiseptics or disinfectants.
Some skin lightening and freckle creams, as well as some traditional medicines, can contain mercury compounds.
Some forms of oxidized mercury are gaseous but unlike elemental mercury vapor, these forms cannot travel globally—they are very soluble, “reactive” and they deposit locally.
Organic mercury compounds, such as methylmercury, are formed when inorganic mercury combines with carbon. This happens most frequently in water, when oxygen concentrations are low, when inorganic mercury is acted upon by microscopic organisms.
Methylmercury “bioaccumulates” and “biomagnifies” in many edible freshwater and saltwater fish and marine mammals to levels that are millions of times greater than levels in the surrounding water. This is the primary pathway of exposure to humans.
How does mercury enter and leave the human body?
When you swallow small amounts of elemental mercury, for example, from a broken oral thermometer, virtually none (less than 0.01%) of the mercury will enter your body through the stomach or intestines, unless they are diseased. Even when a larger amount of elemental mercury (a half of a tablespoon, about 204 grams) was swallowed by one person, very little entered the body. When you breathe in mercury vapors, however, most (about 80%) of the mercury enters your bloodstream directly from your lungs, and then rapidly goes to other parts of your body, including the brain and kidneys. Once in your body, metallic mercury can stay for weeks or months. When metallic mercury enters the brain, it is readily converted to an inorganic form and is “trapped” in the brain for a long time. Metallic mercury in the blood of a pregnant woman can enter her developing child. Most of the metallic mercury will accumulate in your kidneys, but some metallic mercury can also accumulate in the brain. Most of the metallic mercury absorbed into the body eventually leaves in the urine and feces, while smaller amounts leave the body in the exhaled breath.
Methylmercury is the form of mercury most easily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract (about 95% absorbed). After you eat fish or other foods that are contaminated with methylmercury, the methylmercury enters your bloodstream easily and goes rapidly to other parts of your body. Only small amounts of methylmercury enter the bloodstream directly through the skin, but other forms of organic mercury (in particular dimethylmercury) can rapidly enter the body through the skin. Organic mercury compounds may evaporate slowly at room temperature and may enter your body easily if you breathe in the vapors. Once organic mercury is in the bloodstream, it moves easily to most tissues and readily enters the brain.
Exactly how poisonous is mercury?
*calculations for the dropper with 25 grams of mercury.
MERCURY IN OUR AIR
If mercury occurs naturally, why is it considered a pollutant? Where does mercury air pollution come from?
When rocks that contain mercury, including coal, are burnt –usually for industrial uses such as creating electricity—heat releases gaseous forms of mercury in the air.
These gaseous forms of mercury drift through the air and can fall on soils and waters far away from the original source.
These inorganic forms deposited from the air eventually get converted to methylmercury.
Being an element, mercury can never be broken down or degraded into harmless substances.
The problem is that the human activity of combusting mercury-containing rocks is converting ever-increasing amounts of mercury from hidden, solid and insoluble (and hence non-toxic) forms like coal and cinnabar to persistent and globally recyclable, soluble and toxic forms.
Thus, mercury contaminates our air, water, soil and life–plants and animals and human beings.
What are the largest sources of mercury air pollution in the U.S?
Industrial boilers and cement plants are the second and third largest sources, respectively, of mercury and other toxic emissions.
Which states have the worst mercury emissions?
4. West Virginia
8. North Carolina
If I don’t live near a coal plant, do mercury emissions matter to me?
Is the mercury coming from coal power plants toxic in its gaseous form?
What’s this I’ve heard about mercury and fog?
I’ve heard that mercury from China has been found in US air. Is that true?
What kind of mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants?
- • Not all mercury released by coal power plants is in the form of elemental mercury. Up to 95% (with a national average of 45%) of the total power plant or incinerator emissions can be “reactive” gaseous mercury, which is a form of oxidized inorganic mercury. This oxidized form of mercury is ~1000 times more soluble in (rain)water and also undergoes dry deposition ~50 times faster than elemental mercury1.
As a result, it deposits locally (from less than 50 km to 1000 km from point of emission depending upon the direction and speed of wind and rain).
- • Freshly deposited mercury is also more available for transport into microscopic organisms that produce methylmercury–it is more toxic than mercury already in the soil/water.
- • The concentration of mercury in the stacks of coal power plants are 1000 or more times higher than the background urban concentrations.
- • The local deposition in urban areas can be tens to hundreds of fold higher as compared to a natural background of global pool of elemental mercury.
- • Even if some of the mercury emitted by coal power plants is not deposited locally, and not immediately converted to methylmercury, it is added to the global atmospheric pool of mercury.
- • Adding mercury to the global pool means that we have more mercury in the forms which are “fresh” and “new” and more easily absorbable by trees, animals, humans. It is no longer safely stored in the Earth’s “rock-bank” deposits; it is in rapid circulation throughout the world.
What do scientists mean when they talk about a global pool of mercury?
This “mix” of elemental mercury is referred to as the global pool of mercury. It stays in the air until it is converted (oxidized) to soluble inorganic mercury and deposited to soils and waters. Oxidizing gases and free radicals such as bromine, ozone, nitrogen gases influence the conversion of gaseous global pools into deposit-able oxidized mercury.
Even in the absence of industrial activity, there was a background global level of mercury in the air due to volcanic activities. Industrially emitted mercury, after its global distribution, has increased the global background level of mercury in air by an average of three times. Urban areas have more background mercury than rural areas.
Do volcanoes on land and in the deep sea emit mercury?
1. Most people live much further from a volcano than they do from their local industrial point sources, like coal-fired power plants.
2. The total amount of mercury globally emitted by volcanoes and natural weathering is less than one tenth of our industrial sources.
3. Volcanoes do not emit the form of “reactive” inorganic mercury that dissolves in rain and deposits on soils and water easily (link above). Oxidized “reactive” mercury forms emitted by coal power plants and incinerators and other high-temperature operations that emit oxidizing co-pollutants like NOX deposit on local water bodies and are converted to methylmercury much more easily than mercury emitted by volcanoes.
4. A large portion of the mercury present in the atmosphere today is the result of many years of anthropogenic (manmade) emissions. The natural component of the total atmospheric burden is difficult to estimate, although available data suggest anthropogenic activities have increased levels of mercury in the atmosphere by roughly a factor of 3 even at locations far away from industrial areas, and deposition near industrial areas by a factor of up to 10.
5. High concentrations of mercury in some environments come from re-mobilization of historic anthropogenic mercury releases previously deposited in soils, sediments, water bodies, landfills and waste/tailings piles. About 50% of mercury that evaporates from water and soil surfaces today “naturally” was deposited due to human activities.
MERCURY IN OUR FOOD
How does mercury get into our waters?
Because of biomagnification, as larger fish eat smaller ones, mercury concentrations increase in the bigger fish. Consequently, larger predator fish have higher mercury concentrations.
As of 2011, one-point-three-million miles of American rivers and 17 million acres of American lakes are under mercury-related fish contamination advisories–including the entire Great Lakes region.
In 2008 –
- • Nearly half of all U.S. river-miles and lake-acres were under water contamination advisories.
- • Eighty percent of all water contamination advisories were issued because of mercury contamination.
- • Some 17 million lake-acres and 1.3 million river-miles were under mercury-related contamination advisories.
What is the connection between coal and tuna? How does mercury from smokestacks get into our seafood?
Once in our water and soils, microbes, plants and animals can “eat” and “drink” this mercury.
After “drinking” inorganic mercury, microscopic organisms transform it into methylmercury, which is then absorbed by organisms lower in the food chain (i.e., algae – the microscopic plants).
These are then consumed by and bioaccumulated and biomagnified in life forms up the food chain: fish, shellfish and birds and mammals.
We are exposed to methylmercury when we eat the contaminated food that includes all seafood, fish -eating mammals, poultry and sometimes also grains and vegetables.
Mercury contamination is the main reason people are warned to limit consumption of large predator fish.
What do “biomagnification” and “bioaccumulation” mean?
Living organisms cannot easily release methylmercury once it has entered their cells–because of its ability to dissolve in “fats”.
Once inside our bodies, methylmercury stays and collects in the living tissue for a very long time. This is called bioaccumulation.
Methylmercury also becomes more concentrated as it accumulates higher up in the food chain, i.e., its concentration increases as we move from smaller and simpler life forms like algae to higher organisms like fish.
For fish raised in waters with 1 ppt methylmercury (15,000,000,000 mercury atoms per teaspoon of water), seafood up the food chain could have 150,000,000,000,000,000 or more methyl molecules in one teaspoon of fishmeal. This is biomagnification.
In human bodies, methylmercury breaks down into inorganic oxidized mercury very slowly and it is the inorganic mercury that can get excreted out with time.
When I was pregnant my doctor advised me to stop eating albacore (white) tuna fish–because of mercury poisoning. What’s that?
Mercury poisoning occurs when the level of total mercury (especially methylmercury) in your body is high. The safe level of mercury as set by the EPA for a 45 lb child is about 2 micrograms per day. Mercury can enter your body in multiple ways:
1. Breathing air with mercury vapors
2. Exposure to mercury via dental filling (amalgams)
3. Eating food that is contaminated by mercury–such as seafood [link to question above about mercury and food]
4. Directly touching mercury.
Whether exposure to mercury will harm a person’s health depends on the following factors:
- • The chemical form of mercury;
- • The dose;
- • The age of the person exposed (the fetus is the most susceptible);
- • The duration of exposure;
- • The route of exposure — inhalation, ingestion, skin contact, etc.; and
- • The health and diet of the person exposed.
Why are women planning to conceive advised to stop consuming albacore tuna and other mercury-contaminated seafood?
Some doctors advise that women planning to become pregnant stop eating mercury-contaminated food six months before conceiving–because it takes a long time for mercury to leave our systems.
In human bodies, methylmercury breaks down into inorganic oxidized mercury very slowly and it is the inorganic mercury that can get excreted out with time.
Mercury can cross the placental barrier, through the umbilical bloodstream. Mercury also penetrates the fetal blood/brain barrier, which was once considered an impenetrable defense.
Should I stop eating fish?
While all fish accumulate some mercury, they provide, among other essential nutrients, omega 3 fatty acids. People should choose to eat smaller fish, lower in the food chain–they have low concentration of toxic compounds and high concentrations of nutrients.
For more information on what fish are safer to eat click here.
Can I be exposed to mercury even if I don’t eat too much fish?
We can be exposed to mercury via our dental amalgams, through household and occupational use, and through foods that were raised in soils with high concentrations of inorganic mercury.
In a major study (link), it was shown that rice, and not fish, contributed significantly to methylmercury exposure in regions close to mercury-mining regions in China.
Can edible substances other than fish and seafood contain mercury?
Both methylmercury and inorganic mercury can be found in high concentrations in grains such as rice. This is because standing waters are used to irrigate rice paddies and this encourages the formation of methylmercury.
Rice seedlings “drink up” both inorganic mercury deposited in the rice paddy, and methy- mercury that is formed in the rice paddy. A recent study reported very high levels of inorganic and methylmercury in vegetables and rice raised in regions close to the mercury-mining areas in China (link). This suggests that high mercury concentrations could possibly be found in grains and vegetables grown in historic mercury mining areas in Western and Northeastern U.S.
What does mercury poisoning feel like?
- • impairment of the peripheral vision;
- • disturbances in sensations (“pins and needles” feelings, usually in the hands, feet, and around the mouth);
- • lack of coordination of movements;
- • impairment of speech, hearing, walking;
- • and muscle weakness.
Read a first-hand account of a toddler’s mercury poisoning here.
Oxidized or elemental mercury poisoning can also cause a wide variety of health disorders. Specific symptoms include tremors, emotional lability, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular changes, and headaches. In addition, there are effects on the kidney and thyroid gland.
What should I do if I fear that I have mercury poisoning?
Many doctors do not automatically suspect mercury poisoning when first confronted with symptoms such as those described above. It is important to describe symptoms carefully and ask for hair or blood tests.
Read an example of missed diagnosis here.
How long does it take for mercury to leave the human body?
How much mercury can adults tolerate without harmful effects?
However, there is a limit to how much mercury living cells can deal with. Producing anti-oxidants takes a huge portion of energy away from other crucial work that cells need to perform in order to be healthy and fully functional. When cells need to fight more atoms of poisonous mercury, they can’t use their energy to grow, build, divide and be “intelligent.”
MERCURY AND BABIES
What does mercury do to a fetus?
Think about those ultrasound images you have seen of your baby while you are pregnant. The largest–and fattiest–part of that fetus is his or her brain. So methylmercury, which “is drawn to” fat (remember bioaccumulation) goes right to your baby’s brain.
Mercury disrupts the developing architecture of the brain. The brain keeps growing after a baby is born, of course. That is why you don’t want mercury anywhere near your newborns and toddlers.
Can babies be born with mercury poisoning?
In a study, conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health from 2008 to 2010, 1,465 newborns living in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were tested for mercury–8 percent tested above safe levels for methylmercury.
We do not know how many children are born with levels of mercury above the EPA’s recommended standard, because we do not routinely test for mercury levels in newborns.
Does mercury get into breast milk?
1. The level of mercury in a mother’s blood is about 3 times higher than the level of mercury in her milk
2. Mercury needs to cross the barrier of baby’s gut to get into its bloodstream
Infants can also be exposed to mercury through formula if it is prepared with water poisoned with high amounts of methylmercury and oxidized mercury.
In general, the concentration of methylmercury in water is 100-1000 times lower than the concentration of methylmercury in breast milk. Concentrations of oxidized mercury in water can be comparable to their concentration in breast milk.
Some evangelical groups are fighting for stricter mercury standards. Why?
OTHER HEALTH EFFECTS
What other kinds of health problems are caused by exposure to mercury?
Methylmercury can also damage our genes, and cause cancer.
Elemental and oxidized mercury have adverse effects on enzymes associated with thyroid function; reproductive health; genes, respiratory system; gastrointestinal (digestion) system; liver; immune system; and the skin.
Even at very low levels, inorganic mercury exposure can cause a variety of allergic reactions.
I’ve been reading about “endocrine disrupters” because of the controversy over BPA–chemicals used to harden plastic–used in baby bottles. What is an endocrine disrupter? Can mercury compounds act as endocrine disruptors?
Elemental or inorganic oxidized mercury exposure has been shown to increase spontaneous abortion rates, congenital anomalies, and reduce fertility among women (in some cases among men as well).
Can mercury compounds cause cancer?
Is mercury toxic to life forms other than human beings?
Arctic ecosystems, wetlands, tropical ecosystems and soil microbial communities are also highly negatively affected by mercury exposure. Animals with the highest mercury levels include otter, mink, raptors, osprey, and eagles. Eggs of certain Canadian bird species have mercury levels that are a threat to reproduction. Mercury levels in Arctic ringed seals and beluga whales have increased by 2 to 4 times over the last 25 years in some areas of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.
In addition, recent evidence indicates that soil health is adversely affected by mercury exposure. And in a study of Hong Kong’s population of hump-backed dolphins, mercury was identified as a particular health hazard, more than other heavy metals.
Why is mercury so toxic to all life forms?
Due to differences in age, health, route of exposure, and target organs, vulnerability to mercury poisoning may vary from individual to individual. The crucial point is that mercury exposure in any form burdens the biochemical machinery within all living cells. Minimizing mercury exposure is, therefore, essential to longevity of human beings and wildlife, and ecosystem health.
Tell me about mercury and the Latino community?
Latinos tend to fish in their immediate urban communities due to a lack of adequate transportation to safe fishing areas. Fish caught in these areas tend to have the highest concentrations of mercury; as a result, Latinos fishing in contaminated urban areas consume an average of 13.9 micrograms of mercury per day (twice EPA’s safe limit).
76% of Latinos eat the fish that they catch and 64% share what they catch with their families, which often include children and women of childbearing age – two of the most vulnerable populations.
For more on mercury and the Latino community click here.
Tell me about mercury and the African American community?
Additionally, more than half of all African Americans live in areas with air quality that doesn’t meet federal standards; in 2002, 71% of African Americans lived in counties that violated federal air pollution standards, compared to 58% of the white population.
Another large concern is the fact that one-third of African Americans are avid anglers, and they eat fish more often and in larger portions than whites. Consequentially, African Americans have higher exposure to mercury. In 1996, there were 1.8 million licensed African American anglers who spent over $813 million dollars on fishing trips and equipment.
Tell me about mercury and the American Indian community?
Why is the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule such an important regulation?
The Clean Air Act does not currently have limits on the amount of mercury that can be emitted by power plants – but with the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, we will ensure that 90% of the mercury in coal burned in power plants is not released to the air and reduce acid gas emissions by 90%.
What other important mercury-related regulations should I know about?
The regulation you really need to watch, though, is the proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, which will reduce the amount of mercury emissions from power plants. Coal-fired power plants are the single biggest source of mercury emissions in the country; they are responsible for 72% of all toxic mercury pollution in our air. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule will also limit mercury, acid gases, particle pollution, and other dangerous emissions from power plants. The Clean Air Act does not currently have limits on the amount of mercury that can be emitted by power plants; but when the final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule is issued on December 16, 2011, it will keep about 90% of the mercury in coal from being released into our air, and will prevent hundreds of thousands of illnesses and up to 11,000 premature deaths a year.
The Boiler MACT Rule is another EPA rule that applies to any industrial, commercial, or institutional boiler or process heater located at a major source of hazardous air pollutant emissions. The rule requires each boiler at a facility to meet emissions limits or work-practice standards, meet operating limits, and demonstrate compliance on an annual and continuous basis. EPA issued the Boiler MACT proposal on December 2, 2011 and is under court order to finalize the rule by April 3, 2012.
What is the timeline for the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule?
If mercury is so dangerous, why are regulations to limit it so controversial?
Many of the legislative attacks opposing the EPA’s new mercury standards are being sold as an economic remedy, but in actuality they do little or nothing to create or preserve jobs. These legislative attacks would continue to allow uncontrolled air pollution– leading to more lives lost or impaired, more asthma attacks, more emergency room visits, and more children suffering from respiratory infections and compromised lung development.
Considering the abundance of health benefits simply reducing emissions from industrial boilers and cement kilns would deliver, it’s hard to understand why anyone in Washington would even debate such commonsense measures. But unfortunately that is the reality, and therefore it is important to Take Action!
Have any power plants added pollution control technology?
As stated in this letter, signed by CEOs of major utilities, many companies have invested in modern air-pollution control technologies and cleaner and more efficient power plants. Additionally, many major power companies have also indicated that they will be able to comply with EPA’s mercury rule.
How effective is technology to control mercury emissions?
How do you measure how much mercury is coming from a smokestack?
Some politicians claim that we already have mercury regulations in place–so why do we need more?
Aside from the health concerns of having 33 states with no limit on mercury emissions from power plants, this means companies have to operate in a patchwork of state regulations. We should level the playing field for companies that have already made or soon will make the investment to protect public health from mercury.
What about industrial boilers?
After boilers, cement plants are the worst sources of mercury pollution.
What do leading mercury scientists say about strong mercury regulations?
23 of the country’s leading scientific experts on mercury wrote a letter to the White House about the proposed new standard and its importance to the health and safety of all Americans. And I had the honor of joining them!
Together, our group of scientists represents at least a million hours of study on mercury and its effects. But this is the first time we’ve publicly weighed in, as a group, to support this vitally important standard.
We felt compelled to write to President because, during recent Congressional hearings – despite voluminous scientific literature to the contrary – a few people actually claimed that there is no science to back up the health benefits of decreasing pollution from power plants.
Our letter is our answer to that ridiculous claim:
As mercury scientists and physicians, we strongly refute such statements
… affirm our belief that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) will protect the health of thousands of Americans each year.
Some of us have studied how mercury travels in our air, soils or waters — and how it ends up in our bodies. Some of us specialize in how various forms of mercury affect everything from our individual enzymes and cells all the way to our ecosystems. We have, collectively, traced mercury all the way from smokestacks to the cells in our bodies. We also represent physicians who actually treat patients, including children, who have chronic pulmonary, cardiovascular, and neurological diseases caused by air pollution.
And we all came to the same conclusion, which we put into our letter:
… minimizing all mercury exposure is essential to improving human, wildlife and ecosystem health because exposure to mercury in any form places a heavy burden on the biochemical machinery within cells of all living organisms.
Our letter both affirms our support for the scientific findings of EPA’s Science Advisory Board on the health impacts of methylmercury, and goes a step further – to highlight the toxicity of all forms of mercury.
Here are our key points:
• The neurological development, particularly brain maturation, of fetus and young children are severely affected by methylmercury, the form of mercury that collects and concentrates in aquatic food chains.
• While the neurotoxicity of methylmercury to the young has been widely acknowledged, the effects on children and adults through exposure to all other forms of mercury have not been effectively publicized. No form is mercury is safe.
• Mercury has no biologically beneficial function; indeed, each atom that ends up in the body can be toxic to all types of cells.
• Mercury is such a potent toxin because it bonds very strongly to functionally important sites of proteins including enzymes, antibodies and nerve growth-cones that keep cells alive, “intelligent” and safe.
One of my personal heroes is the late Dr. Kathryn R. Mahaffey, who conducted careful studies for over a decade to test the mercury levels in the blood of women of child bearing age in the U.S. Her research is the reason we know that about 10 percent of babies born in America each year have mercury levels sufficient to cause adverse neurological and developmental health effects. Along with her collaborators, she also carefully compiled information on the effects of all forms of mercury on our endocrine system, including hormones that control functioning of our reproductive system.
The pioneering research tools and methodologies developed by several of the mercury research giants who have signed on to this letter helped Dr. Mahaffey reach her conclusions. Some of the signatories are now building on Dr. Mahaffey’s work in insightful ways. For example, Dr. Chad Hammerschmidt from Wright State University has written that unless we decouple mercury emission from power production, we could have as many as 30 percent of children born in the U.S with too much mercury in their blood. Along with their collaborators, Drs. David Evers, Charlie Driscoll and Thomas Holsen identified that local mercury emissions are linked to such high mercury concentrations in multiple biological species that these areas of high mercury emissions were referred to as biological mercury hotspots.
I would love to write more about the fundamental ways in which the signatories of this letter have added to the understanding of the transport, transformations and toxicity of mercury, and I encourage you read the entire letter to see who they are, and to learn more about the work they do.
We fully understand the remaining uncertainties in our understanding of the global mercury cycle. Yet we believe there is irrefutable proof for:
• The local and regional deposition of mercury from coal-fired power plants within the U.S.
• The toxicity of each and every atom of mercury in any form, and
• Rapid reductions in mercury levels in many biological species upon reductions in mercury emissions from local sources
Thus, we attest to the wisdom of stringent national-level mercury regulation. Now we need our policy makers to act. We need them to create and support a strong Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.
What are some of the major U.S. utility companies saying about strong mercury standards?
- NRG Energy Inc., in New Jersey, said “Having the final EPA rule on mercury gives us the clarity we need to be able to select and install the required controls to reduce mercury as well.” “We have already planned for these expenditures and will have the controls in place in time to comply with this rule.”
- In Minnesota, Rochester Public Utilities noted that its “Silver Lake Plant has been prepared for the new mercury rules over the past two years with [an] emissions reduction project installed on Unit 4 in 2009.”
- The Lower Colorado River Authority says it is “well-positioned” to comply with the new EPA rules. LCRA says it has been “evaluating control technologies and will be installing appropriate technologies to ensure compliance within the established compliance timeframe.”
- Dynegy has stated that Illinois’ Hennepin and Havana plants are expected to remain operating and in compliance – indeed, most of the upgrades have already been done in order to comply with Illinois’ already “stringent” regulations, with which they’ve been complying since 2009. Kay Sullivan, Dynergy director of public relations, explained, “We anticipated the changes and saw the need to make an investment there. We’re where we need to be.”
- Public Service of New Hampshire’s mercury pollution controls at its coal-fired Merrimack Station power plant puts the state’s largest utility in good stead to meet new federal pollution rules. PSNH said, “The really good news for New Hampshire is the mercury reduction law that the Legislature passed in 2006 put us on a path of compliance that synchs up very well with this new federal standard.”
- Kansas City Power & Light has already made extensive investments to control pollution of toxic metals, and as a result has said that it is “relatively well-positioned to meet the compliance deadlines of these new rules.”
- Midwest Generation has been developing and installing mercury emission controls at its plants since 2008, nearly all of the company’s generating units are already reducing mercury emissions by more than 90 percent and already comply with the USEPA’s regulation of mercury emissions. Midwest is thus more than three years ahead of the game, as the new rules don’t take effect until 2015.
- Because of statewide mercury legislation passed in 2006, Minnesota’s six largest coal-fired power plant units, including Xcel’s Becker plant, already meet or are on the way to meeting the new standards announced by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to state officials.
- Dairyland Power Cooperative in Wisconsin says it is prepared to comply with the new rules. Dairyland has already implemented about half of its $400 million plan to install pollution controls on coal-fired plants in Genoa and Alma. “We have anticipated a rule like this,” said spokeswoman Katie Thomspon. “We’re well prepared to be in compliance with it.”
- Xcel Energy said of the final MATS rule, “We are well positioned to comply with a number of new environmental standards and regulations, like this one, thanks to early actions we have taken to modernize our generation and mitigate future environmental compliance costs.”
- PSEG’s Vice President of policy and environment, Eric Svenson, said the MATS rules were “overdue” and praised EPA for adopting a pragmatic approach. Mr. Svenson noted that, despite the outcry from some interest groups, much of the industry was already compliant with the new standards. PSEG has already spent about $1.6 billion on upgrading three of its power plants.
- John Russell, CEO of CMS Energy Corporation stated in anticipation of the final rule, “The final MACT rule is expected by year end. We already have a state mercury standard that requires a 90% reduction by 2015 comparable to the proposed federal rule. As a result, we have a head start on implementing these regulations. The bottom line, we are well positioned to comply with these new laws with the plans we have in place.”
- A CPS Energy spokesperson said the utility is fairly well positioned to meet the MATS rule. “Those costs are already built into the budget,” she said, and the installation should be complete in about 18 months, putting the utility into compliance well before the three years allowed by the EPA.
- Ralph Izzo, CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), stated in advance of the final rule, “During the past 5 years, we have invested more than $2 billion to replace inefficient, older generating units and to upgrade our existing facilities to meet new environmental restrictions. PSEG is a long-time advocate of the Clean Air Act Regulations. We view the EPA’s recent technical adjustments to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, more commonly referred to as CSAPR as favorable for our fleet. We are also well-positioned to meet the anticipated requirements under EPA’s HAPs/MACT regulation, which is scheduled to be issued on December 16. We believe these regulations are long overdue. Our experience shows that it is possible to clean the air, create jobs and power the economy, all at the same time. The issuance of these regulations will also provide the industry with much-needed certainty to invest in long lived capital intensive projects such as power plants.”
- Ashlie Kuehn, a spokeswoman for Prairie State Energy Complex, which is financed by Peabody Coal, said the plant’s state-of-the-art technology already places the new plant ahead of the curve. “We are well within the emissions requirements and the mercury regulations,” Kuehn said. “We are being built to be better than those standards.”
- Constellation Energy Vice President Paul Allen said of the MATS rule, “Companies have had a lot of time to think about, consider and prepare for the response to these rules. Options are available to companies to comply with the rule.”
Are the large, influential health organizations on board with the new mercury regulations?
Our organizations write to express strong opposition to S.J. Res. 37, a resolution by Senator James Inhofe that employs the Congressional Review Act to reverse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants. If enacted, S.J. Res. 37 would not only nullify these life-saving standards, but would permanently block EPA from issuing any “substantially similar” mercury and air toxics protections in the future without express Congressional authorization. Sen. Inhofe’s resolution would leave millions of Americans permanently at risk from toxic air pollution from power plants that directly threaten pulmonary, cardiovascular and neurological health and development. We urge you to reject S.J. Res. 37.
Over 21 years ago, Congress wisely directed EPA to reduce the public’s exposure to toxic air pollutants through the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards finally establish those long-overdue safeguards. At last, these standards will dramatically reduce more than 80 toxic air pollutants from the more than 600 coal- or oil-fired power plants operating in the United States. EPA estimates that this vital public health protection will have enormous health benefits, preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and 5,700 hospital visits each year starting in 2016.
According to EPA, these new standards will eliminate more than 90 percent of mercury emissions from power plants – a significant step forward in protecting public health from the debilitating effects mercury can cause, especially in unborn children. Consumption by pregnant women of food containing mercury– even at low levels – can impact fetal neurodevelopment causing delays, learning disabilities and birth defects. Power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury found in the United States.
More than 75 percent of emissions of highly corrosive acid gas pollution (e.g., hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid) in the United States come from power plants. Acid gases can damage the skin, eyes, breathing passages and lungs, particularly in children who have narrower breathing passages, faster breathing rate and often spend more time outdoors than adults. In addition to mercury and acid gases, power plants emit over 80 other toxic substances. They include carcinogens such as arsenic, beryllium, chromium, dioxins and formaldehyde; toxic metals such as lead, manganese and nickel; and volatile organic compounds such as benzene and toluene. The extensive list of harm they produce ranges from a variety of cancers to damage to the neurological, gastrointestinal, immunological, hematological, reproductive and developmental systems.
To reduce these hazardous air pollutants, some power plants will need to install modern pollution control equipment or switch to cleaner fuels. Those changes will have an added benefit: reduced emissions of particulate matter, which are microscopic, deadly particles linked to heart attacks and strokes, asthma attacks, aggravation of other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and premature death.
Only with these strong national standards and pollution control measures can human health be protected from these toxic pollutants. Children and other vulnerable individuals, including pregnant women, older adults, and people with lung disease, heart disease, or diabetes, will benefit immensely. EPA projects between $3 and $9 in health benefits for every $1 spent in complying with the new standards. The benefits apply to people living in the shadow of power plants, and those living hundreds or thousands of miles from the power plant as toxic air pollution can travel far distances.
In fact, EPA’s estimates likely understate the total benefits of cleaning up toxic air pollutants. EPA did not attempt to calculate the benefit of cleaning up most of the over 80 toxic emissions from these power plants. For example, they did not attempt to calculate the harm from the cancers these toxic emissions can cause or the damage to the kidneys, liver and reproductive systems. Those benefits would come on top of the benefits already included.
We trust you will agree with us that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards provide much-needed public health benefits, and that these critical protections are already long-overdue.
Sen. Inhofe’s resolution S.J. Res. 37 consciously elevates the demands of polluters above the health and well-being of our children. If passed, S.J. Res. 37 will force the public to continue breathing toxic air indefinitely. Therefore the undersigned health organizations urge you to vote NO on S.J. Res. 37 and to speak out publicly against any efforts to block, weaken or delay these vital public health protections.
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation
American Association of Respiratory Care
American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
American Nurses Association
American Public Health Association
American Thoracic Society
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
March of Dimes
National Assembly on School-Based Health Care
National Association for Medical Direction of Respiratory Care
National Association of County and City Health Officials
National Home Oxygen Patients Association
Trust for America’s Health
Health Care Without Harm
I heard that New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg came out strongly in favor of regulation?
Over the next few days, the Obama administration will decide whether to address a major public health challenge facing the country: the large amount of mercury that continually pours out of coal-fired power plants, contaminating our air and drinking water.
Every year, mercury from coal-fired power plants is responsible for thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks, and serious respiratory illnesses. In addition, mercury is one of the leading causes of preventable birth defects.
Today, because of mercury, a baby may be born with brain damage or cerebral palsy. An infant may begin developing asthma, which will mean missed school days, visits to the hospital, less physical exercise, and potentially a greater risk of diabetes. And a parent or grandparent may go to the hospital with a heart attack or severe bronchitis.
We can stop this. We can spare children this tragic injustice and the pain it brings their families. We can spare adults from losing years off their lives. And we can spare taxpayers the enormous health care costs that come with mercury-related-illnesses.
Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 70 percent of our nation’s mercury emissions. After being released into the air we breathe, mercury — a heavy metal — also falls into our soil and water, where it can contaminate the food we eat, especially fish.
The EPA has proposed rules that would reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 90%, preventing 12,200 emergency room visits and saving $80 billion a year in health care costs. The rules — now sitting on the president’s desk — are two decades overdue.
In 1990, when the Clean Air Act was last revised, Congress directed the EPA to establish limits on mercury and other emissions of coal-fired power plants. In March, after 20 years of delay, the EPA has finally issued a set of draft rules. By Monday, the president will decide whether to adopt the draft rules, weaken them, or withdraw them entirely. It will be one of the defining tests of the administration’s commitment to public health and environmental protection.
The big power companies have had years to improve mercury emissions controls, and a majority of coal-fired plants (54%) have already done so. The remaining coal-fired plants are generally old and inefficient, and should have been retired years ago. The owners of these plants have been promoting the idea that the EPA’s rules will destroy the American economy and cause rolling blackouts. They won’t. It’s just a scare tactic. In fact, some of the leading voices in our nation’s utility industry — the businesses that run our power lines — do not object to the EPA’s proposed rules.
The utility industry knows that if plant owners decide it is not cost-effective to adopt mercury emission controls, those plants can be converted to cleaner-burning natural gas. That would create even more jobs and reduce costs for consumers, because natural gas plants are more efficient than coal plants. Many old plants have already undergone this transformation, and the American economy — not to mention our public health — is stronger for it.
Owners of mercury-emitting coal-fired plants also argue they need more time, as well as long-term exemptions for some plants. There will always be excuses for delay. But two decades is long enough for the American people to wait for mercury to be removed from the air we breathe.
Coal-fired power plants and the pollution they produce — including mercury — are the number one threat to our public health and the environment. That is why my foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, recently provided a $50 million grant to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, with the goal of retiring one-third of the nation’s coal fleet by 2020. But the federal government must not wait another decade — or another week — to begin phasing out a pollutant that has harmed so many people’s health.
This is not an issue of jobs versus the environment. It’s an issue of the American people’s public health versus a narrow special interest. And it is now up to the President to declare the winner.
Have other Americans spoken out in favor of mercury standards?
- 23 of the country’s leading scientific experts on mercury stated in a letter to Administrator Jackson, “We, the undersigned physicians and scientists studying mercury in our biological and physical environment, write to affirm our belief that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) will protect the health of thousands of Americans each year.” “[M]inimizing all mercury exposure is essential to improving human, wildlife and ecosystem health because exposure to mercury in any form places a heavy burden on the biochemical machinery within cells of all living organisms.”
- Kenneth Kimmell of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection said of the need for a final MATS rule, “Extensive scientific research shows widespread mercury pollution across New England, largely due to air deposition of mercury from upwind states. Because of high mercury levels, all New England states warn against eating certain types of locally caught fish.”
- Albert A. Rizzo, MD, National Volunteer Chair of the American Lung Association stated, “Since toxic air pollution from power plants can make people sick and cut lives short, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are a huge victory for public health.”
- Ilan Levin, Associate Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said of the MATS rule, “The only thing more shocking than the large amounts of toxic chemicals released into the air each year by coal- and oil-fired power plants, is the fact that these emissions have been allowed for so many years.” “There is no reason for Americans to continue to live with unnecessary risks to their health and to the environment.”
- James Salt, Executive Director for Catholics United said, “Catholics and people of faith from across the political spectrum welcome the EPA’s new public health standards on Mercury pollution because they will protect the lives of children.”
- Jeff Levi, PhD, Executive Director of Trust for America’s Health stated, “This new standard, over twenty years in the making, is a critical addition to the Clean Air Act to protect the public’s health.”
- A diverse group of business leaders representing over 125,000 businesses through the American Businesses for Clean Energy, American Sustainable Business Council, Ceres, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Main Street Alliance and the Small Business Majority stated in a letter to the President, “Our experience has shown that the Clean Air Act yields substantial benefits to the economy and to businesses, and that these benefits consistently outweigh the costs of pollution reductions. We believe the finalization of MATS is a meaningful step towards economic recovery and growth.”
- Howard Learner of the Environmental Law & Policy Center said, “These standards mean power plants will invest in modern pollution controls, and that investment will create jobs, cleaner air and better public health. Illinois adopted mercury pollution reduction standards in 2006 and modern control equipment has been installed at almost all coal plants in the state. The technology works, the lights have stayed on, mercury pollution has been reduced and children’s health is better protected. It’s time for the holdout utilities to stop crying wolf, stop stalling and clean up their pollution to protect children’s health and our rivers and lakes.”
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated, “I commend the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for introducing new standards to reduce levels of dangerous toxins in our air. Limiting emissions of mercury and other pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants will save thousands of lives, protect public health, and create jobs for Americans. Our experience in Illinois has shown that mercury emissions can be dramatically reduced without any impact on reliability, cost, or quality of service. We must continue to clean our air and clean up this industry across the country, to create opportunities for Americans and allow all Americans to lead healthier lives.”
- Alan Baker of the American Public Health Association said of the MATS rule, “The dangerous health risks associated with coal-burning power plants is no longer an elusive, distant threat. Exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals can cause asthma and heart attacks, harm those suffering from respiratory illness and in some cases lead to death. Implementing these critically needed standards could mean the difference between a chronic debilitating, expensive illness or healthy life for hundreds of thousands of American children and adults.”
- The Rev. Fletcher Harper at GreenFaith stated,“The EPA’s new rule is a vital step forward morally and religiously. The great religious traditions to which so many US citizens belong – from Judaism, Christianity and Islam to Hinduism, Buddhism and more – are overwhelmingly clear that protecting life and the environment represent a moral responsibility, and that we are called to steward and protect an earth which, ultimately, does not belong to us. By saving thousands of lives – many of them from our nation’s most vulnerable communities – and by preventing toxic emissions, this rule will help ensure that future generations inherit a healthier, cleaner planet.”
- Shannon Baker-Branstetter from the Consumers Union said, “The health risks that mercury exposure poses are serious, especially since those most at risk are children and other vulnerable populations. Mercury from large industrial sources contaminates the air we breathe and common foods that many Americans eat. Regulating mercury emissions is just a common sense way to protect consumers from these health hazards and today’s announcement is a critical step towards that goal.”
- Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham, President of Interfaith Power & Light President said, “This is good news for the religious community across America. The finalization of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards shows us that the 40-year old Clean Air Act is still an invaluable tool to carry out our call to be stewards of God’s Creation and to serve the least among us.”
- Roberto Carmona of Voces Verdes stated, “Voces Verdes applauds the Obama Administration’s important new standard to control and curb mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. This historic rule will benefit our nation as a whole and Latino families everywhere preventing the harmful effects of these pollutants, such as respiratory diseases, developmental problems and heart attacks in our communities. This rule protects our health while also creating thousands of jobs from the manufacturing, engineering, installation and maintenance of pollution controls to meet these standards, potentially including 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs. This is an important move to protect the public health while ensuring a brighter future for our communities.”
- Robert D. Brook, M.D. at University of Michigan and American Heart Association stated of the MATS rule, “This historic action taken today by the EPA will mean that all of us now and in the future can expect to suffer fewer cardiovascular problems caused by breathing harmful air pollutants from power plants, and also see a reduction in other health issues related to mercury and fine particulate matter. Though much progress has been made in cleaning our nation’s air over the past few decades, these added safeguards should help to further reduce cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer in the United States. With these standards in place, generations of Americans will now be able to breathe even cleaner air, a fact we should all be proud of as a nation.”
- Benjamin Todd Jealous, the President of NAACP stated, “This rule is a smart, sensible and overdue step to limit the dangerous effects of these toxins and address the racially disparate impact of air pollution. The standards will save millions of dollars in medical expenses by helping to prevent new cases of asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases that often strike families that can least afford it, while advancing a healthier quality of life for families across the nation.”
MERCURY AND MONEY
Will adding pollution controls raise my electric bill?
Will adding pollution controls mean people lose jobs?
MERCURY IN MY HOME
Are my CFL light bulbs safe? They contain mercury!
CFLs contain 5 milligrams of mercury. This is five thousand times smaller than the dropperful that would contaminate a lake [link above]. Even though this is a small amount, we must take care to dispose of the bulbs properly.
How do I clean up small mercury spills safely?
- • Don’t clean up a large mercury spill yourself. A broken light bulb is NOT a large spill. Call a professional service.
- • Don’t use a vacuum or broom to clean up mercury. They spread mercury around your home and put more mercury in the air.
- • Don’t put mercury down a sink, drain, or toilet.
- • Don’t throw out mercury with your regular trash.
To clean up a small mercury spill (no more than 2 tablespoons), follow these steps:
- • Open a window and run a fan to get vapors out of your home.
- • Keep children away from the spill area.
- • Remove any metal jewelry that you are wearing before cleaning up a spill. Mercury is a metal and may stick to your jewelry.
- • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning up the spill.
- • Carefully pick up any broken glass (from thermometers or light bulbs). Use sticky tape to help pick up small pieces. Put glass in a plastic bag and tie up tight.
- • Scoop up mercury drops with a stiff piece of paper. Sticky tape also helps to pick up small droplets. Put mercury in a plastic bag and tie up tight.
- • Shine a flashlight around the spill area to find smaller drops. Use a cloth rag to clean up.
- • Throw away rags, paper, and tape used to clean up the mercury. Put all in a plastic bag and tie up tight.
- • Use a heavy plastic trash bag to double bag all bags of broken glass, mercury, and cleaning items. Tie the bag tight.
- • After cleaning, wash hands, and stay out of the room where mercury spilled for as long as possible. Keep the window open or a fan running.
More resources about mercury
Thank you to Kritee for her contributions to this resource! Kritee gained postdoctoral experience on nitrogen cycling in the environment as a Camille and Henry Dreyfus post-doctoral fellow in Environmental Chemistry at Princeton University. Kritee also served as a Governor’s Executive Fellow at Eagleton Institute of Politics.