August 8, 2005
Where Does Mercury Come From?
By: Rowan Wolf
I thought I knew about the sources and dangers of mercury until I read The Canaries Had Their Coal Mines in the August 8th NY Times. A lot of mercury in the environment comes from burning coal - particularly coal-fired power plants (51% of the US electric generation is from coal-fired plants).
Mercury concentrates in the body (known as bioaccumulates). The most toxic form is not liquid mercury, but the vapor - as is released with burning. It absorbs through the skin, as well as through ingestion, and cause brain and liver damage as well as birth defects.
Two researchers, Wing Goodale and David C. Evers, have been testing birds in the Catskills for mercury. They are from the BioDiversity Research Institute, and are checking the Catskill watershed which supplies New York City's water. They have found mercury in song birds and are expecting to find it in the birds in the marshes of the Catskills as well. This is bad news for the watershed and its users - human and wildlife (NY Times).
Coal fired plants account for about 40% of the mercury emissions in the United States. This makes Bush's lifting the cap on mercury emissions, and the new energy plan which expands construction of coal fired plants, significant health hazards.
The other interesting source of mercury vapor is those compact florescent bulbs. You know, the ones with the "Energy Star" rating that were being pushed all across the country? The do save energy, but you need to dispose of them as toxic waste. Don't break them and don't put them out in the trash. The same goes for most standard florescent bulbs. That was a surprise to me when I found out because I had always been told to wrap them in newspaper, break them, and put them in the trash. When you break a florescent, it releases the mercury vapor inside. I have no idea how the toxic site handle them. My guess is break them, but I hope I am wrong. And yes the vapor in the bulbs can be hazardous to your health if you break them.
One would think that knowing the hazards of mercury, we would be just a bit smarter. We would mandate scrubbers to remover mercury (and other pollutants) at coal fired plants and other industrial uses. You would think that we wouldn't allow a whole new generation of projects (CF bulbs) to contain mercury, and promote them widely as a "green" product. You would think that there would be warnings and directions on all bulbs and products containing mercury about proper handling and disposal. Those would be the thoughts of any reasonably informed person. Wouldn't it? Guess, that says something about the state of our political representatives and policy makers that they don't do what any reasonably informed person would do.
Clean Air Network Mercury Sources Factsheet - Coal Plants Are Largest Mercury Source (pdf)
National Association of Clean Water Agencies, Evaluation of Domestic Sources of Mercury August 2000
Dept. of Interior, Green Energy & Water Programs
Posted by Rowan at August 8, 2005 11:48 AM Category: Environment