mercury pollution and exposure

The 5 Biggest Sources of Mercury Pollution

Mercury is an overlooked component of air pollution. Here are 5 offenders, and some ways to clear the air.

The 5 Biggest Sources of Mercury Pollution

More expensive than it looks: Polluted air is an often unmentioned cost of mining gold.

3. Chlor-alkali plants. Chlorine bleach, laundry detergent, cheap vinyl purses, shoes, and toys made with polyvinyl chloride (or PVC)—making all these products required the use of chlorine gas at some point. The chlor-alkali plants that produce it use mercury to convert salt to chlorine gas, and to convert salt to caustic soda, or lye, which is then used in products like detergent, plastics, and bleach. The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that while most modern chlor-alkali plants have switched to mercury-free technology, there are still seven plants in the U.S. that use it, and each one has roughly 200 tons of mercury on site at any given time. An unknown amount of that mercury gets lost during manufacturing, whether to the air or surrounding waterways; a 2006 report from NRDC found that operators at four of these plants could account for only 29 of the 159 tons of the mercury they used from 2000 to 2004. (As Rodale News reported earlier this year, some of those plants also make the ubiquitous food ingredient high-fructose corn syrup, and may be tainting food products with mercury.)

What you can do: Avoid chlorine-containing products like chlorine bleach, as well as anything made from polyvinyl chloride, including cheap handbags and shower curtains. Also look for chlorine-free paper products; paper production is the sixth largest mercury emitter in this country. Buy unbleached paper towels, coffee filters, and office paper. For the latter, look for the “Totally Chlorine Free” or “Processed Chlorine Free” labels on the package.

4. Trash incinerators. Hazardous waste, medical waste, and regular garbage incinerators release 13.1 tons (or about 26,000 pounds) of mercury every year, according to statistics from the EPA. The mercury comes from common household items, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs and thermostats, and from automobile scrap. Despite common perceptions that mercury is used in thermometers and blood pressure machines, the medical industry has switched to mercury-free versions of those tools, and medical waste now accounts for the smallest percentage of mercury emissions from incinerators.

What you can do: Visit Environment, Health and Safety Online to see if an incinerator is located near you. Support local efforts to implement stricter mercury controls, and filter your water.

5. Gold mining. According to those same EPA statistics, 11.5 tons of mercury each year are released from gold mining, often called the most polluting industry in the world. Historically, mercury was used to separate gold from mined ore, but in Nevada, which accounts for 80 percent of the gold mined in the U.S., the ore itself contains mercury. The mercury is released when gold is heated to separate the two. The nonprofit group Earthworks estimates that gold mines account for nearly 25 percent of the mercury emissions west of Texas, and it’s not just the existing mines that pose problems. Mercury can seep out of long-abandoned gold mines, most of which are in California, which continue to release mercury from underground pools of mine tailings, despite the fact that they’ve been closed since the end of the 19th century. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that mine waters and sediments in these areas today release hundreds to thousands of pounds of mercury every year.

What you can do: Some major retailers, such as Tiffany & Co., have pledged to use only responsibly mined gold, free of mercury and other pollutants like cyanide. But the greenest, and cheapest, thing to do is opt for antique or estate jewelry when you’re shopping for bling.


Published on: July 22, 2009

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