[Pharmwaste] Article in Time magazine: Mercury rising

DeBiasi,Deborah dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Tue Sep 5 16:56:06 EDT 2006




Sunday, Sep. 3, 2006

Mercury Rising

The toxic metal isn't just in seafood. It's showing up everywhere--and
it's more dangerous than you think



Environmental poisons never play by the rules. Just when you think
you've got them figured out and rounded up, they give you the slip. Get
the lead out of gasoline, and it comes at you through aging pipes. Bury
waste and toxins in landfills, and they seep into groundwater. Mercury,
at least, we thought we understood. For all its toxic power, as long as
we avoided certain kinds of fish in which contamination levels were
particularly high, we'd be fine. And not even everyone had to be
careful, just children and women of childbearing age.


But mercury is famously slippery stuff, and a series of recent studies
and surveys suggests that the potentially deadly metal is nearly
everywhere--and more dangerous than most of us appreciated. Researchers
testing birds in the Northeast have found creeping mercury levels in the
blood of more than 175 once clean species. Others have found the metal
for the first time in polar bears, bats, mink, otters, panthers and


Just as alarming are new discoveries about unexpected sources of mercury
contamination. While coal-fired power plants and chemical factories are
familiar culprits, a recent study reveals that wetlands are mercury time
bombs; if hit by wildfire, they release centuries' worth of accumulated
toxin in a single, sudden blaze. In addition, there's a growing body of
research that reveals the extent to which medium to high levels of
exposure to the metal can harm adults as well as children, causing a
wide range of ills--including fatigue, tremors, vision disorders and
brain, kidney and circulatory damage. All told, "the breadth of the
problem has expanded greatly," says biologist David Evers of the
BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine. "It's far more
prevalent and at higher levels than considered even a couple years ago."


Mercury has to work hard to do all the damage it does. In its pure
state, it is only moderately toxic because it passes quickly through the
body, leaving little to be absorbed. Not so the mercury we pump into the
skies. Smokestack mercury exists in either particle form--which falls
relatively quickly back to earth--or aerosol form, which can travel
anywhere around the globe. Either way, when it lands, trouble begins. On
the ground or especially in the low-oxygen environment of the oceans,
mercury is consumed by bacteria that add a bit of carbon to convert it
to methylmercury, a metabolically stickier form that stays in the body a
long time. That is bad news for the food chain, since every time a
bigger animal eats a smaller animal, it consumes a heavy dose of its
prey's mercury load. That's why such large predatory fish as shark,
swordfish, mackerel, tilefish and albacore tuna are so heavily
contaminated. Less publicized but still problematic is toxic mercury
vapor, which can be odorlessly emitted from factories and dumps where
batteries, fluorescent lamps, jewelry, paints, electrical switches and
other mercury-containing products are manufactured or discarded.


All that has been known for a while, but the game changer was the recent
study of Northeastern songbirds. A group headed by Evers had been
worried for some time that mercury's reach was greater than it seemed,
particularly in the Northeast, which is downwind from the power plants
of the Midwest and Canada. Mercury from those plants' smokestacks could
find plenty of bacteria in water, leaves and sod to make the toxic
conversion to methylmercury. Netting 178 species of songbirds and
testing their blood and feathers, Evers found that all of them were
indeed contaminated, some in concentrations exceeding 0.1 parts per
million. That doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot higher than it
ought to be, and it's surely on the rise. So far, the toxin hasn't
disrupted the birds' reproductive cycle, but researchers fear that it
will before long. What's more, if the birds are contaminated, so are
other animals that eat the same diet--not to mention predators that eat
the birds. Says Evers: "It creeps up the food chain and continues to
biomagnify as it goes."


The wetlands study darkened the picture further. Marshes in Alaska and
northern Canada are natural sinks for mercury, which chemically adheres
to damp peat and readily converts to the methyl form. That is not a
problem as long as the mercury stays put. But increasingly frequent
droughts--a likely consequence of global warming--have led to
increasingly frequent wildfires, causing wetlands to release centuries'
worth of collected mercury in one toxic breath. "There's mercury that's
been accumulating since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution," says
ecosystems ecologist Merritt Turetsky of Michigan State University, who
has been studying the problem. "During droughts, you get a meter-thick
carpet of dry peat in some places, and all you need then is a match.
Lightning usually provides that."


As global mercury levels rise, more and more species are being affected.
A recent study by investigators at Denmark's Natural Environmental
Research Institute showed that mercury measurable in the fur of
Greenland polar bears is 11 times higher than it was in baseline pelts
preserved from as early as the 14th century. This fall the National
Wildlife Federation will release a survey of more than 65 recently
published studies showing elevated mercury in more than 40 species, many
of which had been thought to be in little danger. Some, including common
loons and bald eagles, are already showing signs of behavioral and
reproductive changes associated with mercury poisoning.


Cleaning up the mess is the responsibility of the species that made it,
and that job starts with coal. The 440 coal-fired power plants in the
U.S. produce about 48 tons of mercury a year--40% of the nation's total
output, by some estimates. The Clinton Administration did not attack the
problem until its final year, when it issued a proposal that would have
required a 90% cut in power-plant mercury by 2008. President George W.
Bush has discarded the Clinton rule in favor of a looser standard that
would result in only a 70% reduction by as late as 2025. What's more,
Bush weakened the Clean Air Act's new-source-review rule, which requires
power-plant owners to install the best available pollution controls when
they make major upgrades that result in increased emissions.


Lately, however, the courts have been pushing back. In March a federal
circuit court in Washington strengthened the new-source-review
requirements by refusing to sanction a loophole that the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) had introduced, and last month a circuit court
in Chicago forbade a move by the Cinergy power corporation to measure
its pollution output hour to hour rather than year to year, because the
hourly standard often produces a lower, less accurate reading of
emissions. In November the U.S. Supreme Court will address the same
measurement question in a case out of North Carolina. All those battles
technically address smog and soot, not mercury, but where the first two
go, the third follows. "Power plants are the 800-lb. gorilla," says John
Walke, a project director with the National Resource Defense Council and
a former attorney for the EPA. "Their [mercury] output is


But while much of the environmental mercury in the U.S. comes from power
plants, the other dominant source is chlor-alkali plants, which
manufacture chemicals used in soaps, detergents and other products. More
than 25% of the U.S. total blows in from overseas, particularly from
coal-gobbling countries like China. Illinois Senator Barack Obama has
proposed two bills to address those problems. One requires the eight
chlor-alkali plants in the U.S. that still use mercury to convert to a
less toxic alternative by 2012. The other calls for a ban on U.S.
exports of mercury starting in 2010--a significant move, since the U.S.
sells as much as 300 tons of the metal a year, or 8% of the world's
total. More than a dozen state governments across the U.S. are getting
ahead of Washington with mercury controls of their own. Foreign
governments have also acted. "Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan have
been reducing their use of mercury for five to 10 years," says Linda
Greer, a member of the EPA's science advisory board.


The good news is, once mercury is removed from circulation, it needn't
trouble us again. As long as it's held in double-hulled containers and
kept relatively cool to prevent evaporation, it is largely inert. "It's
my favorite chemical for what you can finally do with it," says Greer.
"It will sit placidly in a warehouse at under 70 degrees." It's a
remarkably quiet end for a remarkably dangerous metal--an end that can't
be too soon in coming. 




With reporting by With reporting by Coco Masters


Deborah L. DeBiasi

Email:   dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov

WEB site address:  www.deq.virginia.gov

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality

Office of Water Permit Programs

Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program

Mail:          P.O. Box 10009, Richmond, VA  23240-0009 

Location:  629 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA  23219

PH:          804-698-4028

FAX:      804-698-4032


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