Developing a National Inventory of Mercury Production and Use - The Time Has Come

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) just petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a rule requiring companies which import, produce, or use mercury (or mercury compounds) in manufacturing processes to provide data regarding these activities. These data will become the national mercury inventory that EPA promised almost ten years ago. The data were never compiled despite reports by state and federal agencies bemoaning the lack of information, and are needed by EPA as it prepares to promote further mercury use reduction in the country and comply with legal obligations under the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Mercury, of course, is a powerful neurotoxin but EPA does not know how much is produced by the United States or imported each year, or how much is used and for what purposes. EPA has tried to obtain some of this information from producers, first voluntarily, and then by issuing subpoenas. The only significant data on mercury use are currently compiled by NEWMOA, which manages the Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC) targeting only mercury use in products.

Mercury in switches and relays used in a variety of consumer products and industrial applications, such as appliances, pumps, leveling devices, pumps, and machinery control panels, is the largest remaining product use of this neurotoxin. Almost 20 tons of mercury was used for this purpose in 2010, according to data compiled by IMERC. EPA considers it a "high priority special concern" warranting action to reduce human and environmental exposures to elemental mercury and methyl mercury. The mercury in switches and relays is released if these devices break, if the devices are in cars or other components sent to steel recyclers, or if the devices are otherwise improperly disposed of in landfills or incinerators.

Other countries - and some states - have taken action, though: The European Union and Canada have strong restrictions against mercury in switches and relays, and 16 states prohibit the sale of at least some types of mercury-added switches/relays. The United States government has an obligation under the Minamata Convention to reduce the domestic production and trade of mercury-added switches and relays to de minimis levels.

But the IMERC states stopped collecting data on most mercury switch and relay production after 2010 because they had banned the sales of these products and they can't request data on the continuing use elsewhere in the country. In addition, EPA has no mechanism to obtain these data from the 30+ companies that have reported their production to the states. A lose-lose situation. NRDC's petition solves this problem.

Our petition will also require reporting on other mercury uses, such as in children's products, building upon the data now collected by the State of Washington under that unique state law. And it will collect the data needed to inform US Government action under the Minamata Convention to phase-down mercury use in polyurethane manufacturing, identify large mercury stocks in storage or annually produced, and discourage new mercury uses in products or industrial processes.

Case in point: A new product on the market, which allegedly protects against "tennis elbow", contains mercury. It's available on Amazon, but the website product description fails to inform potential buyers that the "high density liquid" used to absorb vibrations is mercury. This is a good example of a product that should be "discouraged" under the Convention.

Until now most mercury use data collection and regulatory activity has been undertaken by the IMERC states. NEWMOA's support of our petition (along with the IMERC states of Washington and Minnesota) demonstrates the way forward we propose will be both efficient and effective.

About the Authors

David Lennett

Senior Attorney, Western Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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