United States and European Commission Diverge Sharply on How to Curb Mercury Pollution

Press contact: Linda Greer or Elliott Negin, 202-289-2405;
Ban Mercury Working Group: Michael Bender, 802-249-8543 or 802-223-9000
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State Department to Announce Ineffective U.S. Position Tomorrow, Strong E.C. Position Issued Earlier Today

It's the United States versus "old" Europe. On one side, there's the Bush administration's do-nothing, call-for-more-study approach, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the can-do, let's-roll-up-the-sleeves and take-care-of-problem position.

On Tuesday, February 1, the U.S. State Department will officially release its position on mercury use and pollution for international negotiations to be held by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya, late next month. The United States will make no commitments to reduce mercury pollution. Instead, it has invited other countries, as well as industry and nongovernmental organizations, to join in voluntary discussion groups, which it calls "partnerships," to further assess the problem of mercury use in key industrial sectors and its health effects (for the U.S. position, click here to see an Environmental Protection Agency document. For more information about the U.S. position, contact Jerry Clifford at EPA's Office of International Affairs, 202-564-6600).

Earlier today, the European Commission announced its position for the meeting, making a number of substantial commitments to curtail both mercury supply and demand. It pledged to close its only operating mercury mine, which is in Spain, and hold its surplus mercury in storage. It pledged to reduce demand by reviewing and reducing remaining uses in products and processes within its borders, and by supporting international institutions to help reduce demand in the developing world. An international coalition of nongovernmental environmental organizations has applauded the strong E.C. approach, especially its decision to reduce the supply of mercury in global commerce. (For the EC's position, click here.)

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) sharply criticized the U.S. position on international mercury pollution. "This administration has been pointing to pollution sources outside of our borders for years as the rationale for not aggressively curbing power plant pollution and other mercury sources within our own country," said Dr. Linda E. Greer, director of NRDC's Health and Environment Program. "The abdication of its responsibility to play a leadership role internationally breeds tremendous cynicism about its commitment to solving this global problem and protecting public health."

How best to reduce worldwide mercury use is in dispute, but there is no argument that it poses a significant threat to human health. Like lead, it threatens the brain and nervous system. Mercury exposure can lead to neurological diseases and such developmental problems as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and mental retardation. Elevated mercury levels in adults can adversely affect fertility, blood pressure regulation, and may contribute to heart-rate variability and heart disease. Women and children are at most risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA. One in six women of childbearing age has mercury in her blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus. Thus, some 630,000 newborns are threatened every year by neurological impairment from exposure in-utero. Infants and children also are endangered because their developing brains are extremely sensitive to mercury, which they can ingest from breast milk and contaminated fish. (For more information about mercury pollution in the United States, click here.)

Environmentalists and health advocates are most troubled by the U.S. position on mercury usage in chlorine manufacturing (the chlor-alkali sector of the chemical industry). In the United States alone, this sector purchases more than 100 tons of mercury, and it is estimated that worldwide it purchases 797 tons, 23 percent of total global use.

"The U.S. partnership plan does nothing more than cover up the dirtiest remaining mercury uses in our own country," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project (MPP) and representative for the Ban Mercury Working Group, a coalition of 28 advocacy organizations around the world. "It fails to address the need to transform this industry here and abroad by moving it away from its reliance on an outdated mercury technology. It fails to address the need to store the industry's surplus mercury. And it won't even establish a baseline to measure the limited progress it might make. If adopted, the U.S. plan would take Europe 10 steps backward from where it is today."

According to NRDC and the Ban Mercury Working Group, any strategy to reduce global mercury use and pollution must contain four key elements to be effective:

  • accurate trade tracking to better understand use patterns across the globe;
  • control of supply to keep developed nations from flooding the market as they phase out uses of toxic mercury within their own borders, and to ensure that mercury uses does not inappropriately accelerate in the developing world;
  • reduction of demand, starting first with the largest, most polluting uses of mercury that have readily available alternatives; and
  • a commitment to engaging in international discussions to set global mercury reduction goals and developing a global mercury action plan to accomplish those goals. (For more information on the NRDC-Ban Mercury Working Group position, click here.)

Mercury is a global pollutant whose release anywhere in the world leads to pollution everywhere because it travels easily around the world. Mismanaged mercury in a developing county like India can find its way into canned tuna fish sold in American grocery stores, as well as into our freshwater and saltwater sports fish.