President Obama: Continue to Lead on Restricting Mercury

President Obama has deftly used his time in office to make bold statements on everything from Guantanamo to global warming. In two weeks, he will have another opportunity to send a message to the world that the United States is under new leadership. On February 16, the international environmental community will gather in Nairobi to decide on a global agreement to restrict the dangerous neurotoxin mercury--something the Bush administration blocked for six years.

This is a critical moment. It is the first international environmental meeting during the Obama administration at which a major decision must be made. It is an opportunity for the new administration to demonstrate to the world that the United States is committed to joining international efforts to protect people's health and the environment, rather than block them at every turn. 

And it is a chance for President Obama to build on his already impressive efforts to restrict mercury. A few years ago, then-Senator Obama read an expose in his hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, about high levels of mercury in canned tuna, and he became committed to protecting people from this hazard. His staff approached the environmental community and proposed working together to address the problem.

Although his interest was spurred by a local news story -- like parents everywhere, Senator Obama was concerned about exposing his children to unsafe chemicals (click here for a wallet guide to mercury in fish) -- he recognized an important part of the problem: mercury is a global pollutant that does not observe national borders. Mercury released from U.S. power plants may travel to Europe, while mercury escaping from outdated chemical factories in India can easily turn up in fish caught by anglers in the Great Lakes or sold at a Manhattan grocery store. It is a global problem that needs a global solution.

Senator Obama reached across party lines, and with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski sponsored an impressive bill to ban U.S. exports of mercury. Ultimately, the bill garnered strong support from both the environmental community and the mining and chemical industries, and on October 15, 2008, it was signed into law.

Now President Obama can take the U.S. commitment one step further by endorsing an international agreement on mercury. The agreement could restrict the international trade of commodity mercury, phase out mercury from products such as thermometers and dental amalgams, reduce the use of mercury in industrial processes, and limit emissions from major sources such as coal-burning power plants.

Fortunately, many of these goals are readily achievable. For almost every product and industrial process using mercury, there is a cost-effective, readily available, and often energy-efficient alternative. For instance, since the 1800s, people have made chlorine and caustic soda using mercury as a catalyst. But in the 1970s, a much cleaner process was developed that uses no mercury. The international agreement can provide a strong incentive for industries to shift from the 19th century technology to the newer, cleaner process.

But this negotiation is not just about mercury. For the past eight years, the United States has abdicated its international leadership. Here is one of the first opportunities to show the world that the United States is no longer an obstructionist, but a constructive leader once again.