More U.S. Waterways Polluted by Mercury, New EPA Data Reveals

Problem Underscores EPA's Failure to Control Toxic Pollution, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (August 24, 2004) -- More of America's waterways are polluted by mercury, leaving locally caught fish unsafe to eat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's newly released summary of state fish consumption advisories (data available here). The advisories, issued by state health and environmental officials in 48 states, warn people to avoid eating fish contaminated by mercury, PCBs, dioxin and other industrial pollutants. Mercury, a poison that interferes with the brain and nervous system, is the pollutant of concern for most state fish advisories, with 45 states issuing mercury advisories in 2003. Eating mercury-laden fish can cause serious health problems, especially for children and pregnant women.

According to EPA's summary of 2003 data, three states -- Montana, Washington and Wisconsin -- now have statewide consumption advisories for mercury, raising the total to 21 states with statewide advisories for mercury contamination in every freshwater lake and/or river. Twelve states have statewide advisories for mercury contamination covering all their coastal water. In addition, the number of river miles with mercury contamination warnings nationwide has jumped 60 percent since 2002; likewise the number of mercury-contaminated lake acres has increased 8 percent.

"The widespread mercury pollution problem threatens the health of millions of Americans," said John Walke, director of NRDC's Clean Air Program. "These alarming advisories underscore the need for aggressive control of mercury polluters, such as power plants, but the Bush administration's air pollution policies have been dangerously weak."

In January 2004, the EPA proposed to weaken and delay efforts to clean up mercury emissions from roughly 1,100 coal-fired boilers at more than 460 electric power plants. Because the administration's plan treats mercury as if it were a run-of-the-mill air pollutant instead of a hazardous air pollutant, EPA is trying to avoid requiring power plants to reduce emissions by the maximum amount achievable by 2008, as the Clean Air Act requires. The agency has acknowledged that its proposal would require a mere 29 percent reduction in mercury pollution by 2010, and would not be fully effective until at least 2025.

According to NRDC, EPA has also gone easy on another set of big mercury polluters -- mercury chlorine plants (also called chlor-alkali plants). These companies use mercury to convert salt to chlorine gas and caustic soda (better known as lye), which is used in soaps and detergents. Although more modern chlor-alkali plants use a cleaner, mercury-free technology, nine U.S. chlor-alkali plants continue to use mercury. At any given time, each plant has an average of 300 tons of mercury on site, and collectively the plants use dozens of tons of mercury annually to replenish the amount that escapes from the manufacturing process. They cannot account for where the "lost" mercury goes. Nor can EPA, but the agency has failed to set restrictions on "fugitive" emissions from these plants, and even weakened pre-existing standards for the industry. In response, NRDC and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against EPA over the rule in February.

Finally, EPA has failed to address the vast majority of mercury pollution caused by a little-known mercury source: switches in automobiles. Mercury escapes into the air from automobile switches when older cars are crushed and melted down by iron and steel plants, and the amount of mercury in car switches is substantial. Last year, only after NRDC demanded that EPA require large iron and steel foundries to ensure that the scrap they receive is free of mercury convenience lighting switches did the agency insist that such plants institute a program to ensure their scrap is free of mercury light switches from trunks and hoods. However, EPA's rule only applies to the large facilities that process about 10 percent of the automobile scrap each year, and EPA is only now beginning to consider establishing mercury removal requirements for the remaining plants.

"Unfortunately, the Bush administration refuses to get serious about forcing polluters to reduce their toxic emissions, and the number of contaminated waterways continues to escalate," said Jon Devine, an attorney in NRDC's Health and Environment Program.

To learn more about these pollution sources, fish consumption advisories, and avoiding mercury exposure, visit NRDC's Mercury Guide. The guide's features include:

  • facts about mercury contamination, its effects and where it comes from;
  • a calculator for measuring personal mercury consumption;
  • mini-guides on eating tuna safely and mercury levels in fish;
  • interactive maps for identifying mercury sources and state fish advisories;
  • an opportunity to take action against mercury pollution;
  • questions and answers about mercury in thermometers and dental fillings; and
  • information to help medical professionals diagnose mercury overexposure.