Health Advocates Urge Administration to Support Binding Global Mercury Treaty

Groups Applaud Congressional Resolution Introduced by Sen. James Jeffords

WASHINGTON (October 7, 2004) -- Industrial mercury pollution has reached dangerously high levels around the world, and it will take an international effort to combat it, two U.S. health advocacy groups said today. The groups, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Mercury Policy Project, applauded a new congressional resolution urging the Bush administration to support a binding international treaty to reduce mercury use, trade and pollution. The resolution was introduced earlier today by Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), along with Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

"We applaud the bipartisan approach taken by Senator Jeffords and others in recognition that no single country can resolve the mercury problem on its own," said Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project and a representative of the Ban Mercury Working Group, a global coalition of 28 organizations. "There are alternatives for most all mercury uses, but there is no alternative to global cooperation."

A potent neurotoxin, mercury can harm the brain, kidneys and liver, and can cause developmental problems. Environmental Protection Agency scientists recently estimated that one in six American women of childbearing age has a blood mercury level that could pose a risk to her developing fetus, which means approximately 630,000 newborns may be threatened every year by neurological impairment from mercury exposure in-utero.

The biggest sources of mercury in the United States include coal-fired power plants, chlorine plants that use an outdated mercury technology, and mercury vehicle switches, which get into the environment when old cars are scrapped. (For more information on mercury pollution, see NRDC's guide to Mercury Contamination in Fish.) Mercury pollution in the United States does not derive only from U.S. sources, however. Mercury emissions circulate globally, and wind up in waterbodies around the world, from America's favorite fishing holes to the Arctic Ocean. Over the last century, human activity has boosted global mercury levels three- to five-fold, threatening human health and the environment, as well as the viability of the fishing industry.

Last year, European delegates to a U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council meeting in Nairobi began working on laying the foundation for a global treaty on mercury. U.S. officials argued that it would be too expensive, time-consuming and difficult. A U.S. delegation document leaked just prior to the meeting indicated that the United States would try to scuttle any plans for such a treaty. "We should block any attempt to move forward," the document stated.

Even with U.S. disapproval, European negotiators were able to leave the door open for a treaty. The next UNEP meeting is scheduled for next February.

"The United States should be a leader in the international community's efforts to reduce mercury use and pollution," said NRDC attorney Jon Devine, "but instead this administration has failed to take the issue seriously enough. This congressional resolution is a common-sense demand that the administration take action, both to protect the health of Americans and to lead the world in solving this problem."