Steps to Reduce Mercury Sources and Risks
Regulatory Positions and Actions Regarding Mercury Sources
As has been discussed throughout this report, mercury compounds
exhibit several characteristics that make them of great concern
to MADEP, MADPH as well as other state environmental and public
health agencies across the country. These include:
- significant potential toxicity, especially towards fetuses;
- persistence in the environment once released; and,
- the ability of organic mercury to bioconcentrate into living organisms, most notably fish.
As discussed earlier, these traits have led to significant adverse
environmental impacts by mercury, especially on freshwater ecosystems.
Because of these characteristics, MADEP, as well as other local,
state and national regulatory agencies, have initiated a number
of efforts to reduce sources of mercury; to control mercury releases
into the general environment; and to minimize risks attributable
to mercury already in the environment. In order to reduce potential
mercury impacts MADEP, EOEA and other State Agencies are taking
the following specific actions in the areas of source reduction;
emission controls and risk reduction:
- Source Reduction.
In keeping with the Department's pollution prevention
philosophy, MADEP is focusing its efforts on those areas where
controllable sources of this metal exist, through both reduced
use of mercury and collection and recycling of products containing
mercury, including batteries and fluorescent lights. Efforts
to prevent mercury pollution will reduce environmental contamination
in the future and thus reduce risks to people and wildlife. Elimination
or reduction of mercury and other toxins in products promotes
their safe recycling and reuse and decreases the need for disposal
of hazardous wastes. Specific actions by MADEP and EOEA to reduce
mercury sources include:
- Adoption of a Battery Collection and Recycling policy. This
policy streamlines and simplifies regulations that have hindered
the collection and recycling of these products, allowing for batteries
that test as hazardous waste to be more easily collected and recycled.
Collection of mercury containing fluorescent lights has also been
encouraged, and in excess of 15% of these are now being recycled
- MADEP and EOEA have actively supported legislation to ban
the sale of many mercury-added batteries in MA and to require
that manufacturers provide for the collection and recycling of
mercury containing button cell batteries. Recently passed national
legislation has now banned the sale of many mercury-added batteries.
Some button cell batteries will, however, continue to use mercury
as it is currently needed for them to function properly. Thus,
MADEP and EOEA continue to support state legislation to require
the collection and recycling of button cells. Additionally, to
verify compliance with the new federal sales bans, MADEP will
institute a compliance and enforcement program to spot check market
place batteries for their mercury content.
- EOEA and MADEP are in the process of obtaining state authorization
for USEPA's Universal Waste Rule, which streamlines regulatory
requirements for common hazardous wastes, facilitating increased
collection of those materials. This Rule, which was finalized
in April, 1995, applies to mercury containing batteries and thermostats
and could be extended to other materials containing mercury under
state authorization. MADEP expects to obtain authorization from
USEPA by the end of this year.
- The Administration, including MADEP and EOEA, has expanded
its efforts on the management of solid waste, targeting a variety
of hazardous materials, including mercury containing products
from households and small businesses, for collection prior to
disposal to landfills or combustion facilities. These efforts
include the development of informational materials to assist municipalities,
small businesses and citizens in recycling mercury containing
batteries and lights. The new MA Plan for Managing Hazardous
Materials From Households and Small Businesses, lays out a statewide
strategy to minimize mercury and other forms of hazardous chemicals
in solid waste.
- Emission Controls.
Although most important, source reduction efforts will not eliminate
mercury emissions. Thus, efficient end-of-pipe pollution control
will still be needed. Steps the Department is taking to ensure
that appropriate, effective pollution controls are in place include
- MADEP is implementing the new Federal emission control requirements
on MSWCs. These important new requirements will reduce mercury
emissions by up to 85% or more when in place. As it is national
in scope, this regulation will reduce both mercury emissions here
in MA as well as emissions in other States that may impact MA
and the Northeast.
- Mercury and other heavy metals have been targeted by MADEP
and EOEA as focal points for their Innovative Technology development
and support efforts. Technologies of interest include better emission
control and monitoring devices. An innovative technology currently
supported by MADEP is designed to remove heavy metals, including
mercury, from contaminated waste water. This technology, by SolmeteX,
Inc. of Walpole, MA is now being evaluated for its effectiveness
in removing mercury from hospital wastewater.
- MADEP will continue to be actively involved in developing
regional and national policies intended to reduce the interstate
transport of mercury. In particular, MADEP is working to make
sure that federal efforts to restructure the electric utility
industry include requirements for effective controls on the emissions
of mercury and other pollutants from utilities that could adversely
effect the Northeast.
- Risk Reduction.
Even if all mercury emissions were to be completely eliminated
today, significant potential risks due to contamination of fish
would remain well into the future. This is because, as discussed
above, the mercury already in the environment will recirculate
and remain bioavailable for many years. In order to reduce risks
MADEP, EOEA, and MADPH is taking the following steps.
- Continued environmental monitoring to identify waterbodies
where fish contain unsafe levels of mercury and announcements
of fish consumption advisories as appropriate.
- Public outreach efforts, such as this report, to inform the
public about the potential risks of mercury .
- Research into mercury sources and risks. This includes completion
of a study on the distribution and determinants of mercury in
freshwater fish to better understand and predict potential areas
of risk; collaboration with NESCAUM and other regional organizations
to investigate mercury transport and deposition in the northeast;
and scientific evaluations of new toxicological information on
mercury to assess the adequacy of current regulatory standards.
Steps We Can All Take to Reduce Mercury Pollution
In addition to these regulatory actions there is much that individual
citizens can do to reduce mercury pollution. As noted above much
mercury enters the environment from the disposal of everyday household
products. Consumers can significantly reduce such mercury pollution
by buying mercury free batteries and recycling batteries, such
as many button cells, that continue to contain mercury. For older
household batteries, all button cell batteries and all imported
batteries it is best to assume that they have mercury unless stated
otherwise and to recycle them. Fluorescent and other high intensity
light fixtures also contain mercury and should be recycled when
possible. Information on how to recycle these products can be
found in two MADEP consumer information publications entitled
Mercury in Household Batteries and Mercury in Fluorescent
Lights, which are available at no cost from the MADEP InfoLine.
To request one or both, call (617) 338-2255 or, toll-free from
outside of the 617 area, 1-800-462-0444.
Many other household products may also contain substantial amounts
of mercury. In particular, older thermostats, thermometers, paints
and some pesticides are likely to have significant mercury in
them. These should be disposed of through your community's household
hazardous waste collection program rather than into the trash.
There also some simple steps we can all take as individuals to
minimize potential risks from mercury. Should products containing
mercury (such as a thermometer) break it is important to carefully
cleanup any spilled mercury (the silvery, liquid metal) and get
the material and broken product out of the house. This should
be done by scooping up the mercury droplets, which look like round
spheres of silver liquid, gently into a container or vial using,
for example, a cupped piece of paper as a scoop. The mercury should
not be vacuumed! Vacuuming will break up the mercury into small
particles and spew it into the air - even high efficiency vacuums
cannot prevent the mercury from getting into the air. If you accidentally
vacuum up mercury, immediately dispose of the vacuum bag.
If you like to fish (and lucky or skillful enough to actually
catch some!) you can minimize your exposure to mercury by not
eating fish from posted lakes and ponds in MA or other states.
As noted earlier, if you are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant
in the near future the MADPH recommends that you not eat freshwater
fish from MA lakes, ponds and streams. The USFDA also recommends
that pregnant women and those why may become pregnant limit eating
swordfish and shark to no more than one meal a month, because
of the possibility that they may contain elevated levels of mercury.
In general exposures to mercury can be further reduced by not
eating large predatory fish, such as big bass or pike, which are
the one's most likely to have bioaccumulated mercury. So called
put-and-take fishing for stocked trout is also a safe way to catch
a good fish meal as the trout stocked by the MA Division of Fish
and Game do not contain unsafe levels of mercury.
By taking some simple steps, we can all help to minimize mercury
pollution and the risks to human health that such pollution causes.
Together, state, national and individual efforts are needed to
address this problem. Although many steps are being taken which
will ultimately reduce the health risks posed by mercury, it is
important to note that these efforts are unlikely to lead to immediate
reductions of mercury concentrations in specific environments
(e.g., lakes). In particular, concentrations of mercury in freshwater
fish may not be reduced quickly. The persistence of mercury once
released into the biosphere means that continued recirculation
of mercury already emitted will occur for many years. This recirculation,
combined with continuing inputs from natural sources, means that
even successful efforts to control human-derived mercury releases
may not result in detectable, short-term reductions in the concentrations
of this metal in areas already affected. Discernible reductions
may require many years to become evident and thus will require
patience and perseverance.
Where to Next:
Questions or Comments?
C. Mark Smith
MA DEP Office of Research and Standards