Mercury is a silent killer and is being released from more sources than you can imagine, especially in Western Pennsylvania. Here, we talk about why it’s important to know about overexposure to mercury, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Industries did not intend to produce mercury pollution, rather that mercury is a byproduct pollutant of other products produced by industry. There is the relatively little use of mercury in an industrial sense. Though, industrial civilizations thrive on energy, transportation, and material goods. Almost all of those products and services are linked in one way or another to mercury pollution. However, the silent killer is directly related to health consequences for people all over the planet.
1. Americans are Still being Impacted by Mercury Pollution
Mercury is an element, found on the periodic table. Pure mercury actually isn’t as harmful to the body as you might think. Drinking a tablespoon of pure, un-methylated mercury will not cause significant harm to the person drinking. The mercury, instead just passes right through the system. In fact, propaganda from Brazilian illegal gold miners exploits the common misconception that “all mercury is bad” by showcasing people drinking a tablespoon of un-methylated on live television (Aaronson, 2012) to convince the population that “mercury is not at all poisonous,” and “there’s nothing to worry about.”
Methyl-mercury is much trickier. Methyl-mercury is a mercury atom attached to a methyl group. A Methyl group is a molecule that “sticks” to the body chemically. When this happens, the mercury accumulates in the body, causing a myriad of health effects. This accumulation can “cause neurological damage in children, lead to cancer and damage the circulatory system, kidneys, and livers (Daly, 2015).” Accumulation affects adults as well as productivity for industry. “The EPA had calculated up to 11,000 preventable deaths, 4,700 nonfatal heart attacks, 130,000 asthma cases and 540,000 lost days of work [directly related to the accumulation of mercury] (Moore, 2015).” This loss in production and human life is worthy, at least, to look into why society decides to keep using products and services that relate to so many preventable deaths.
Solutions: Monitor your intake of wild fish. Limit your exposure to gasoline in public places. Don’t drink any form of mercury, even though it sounds cool.
2. Forget Carbon Pollution: Mercury Pollution isn’t Being Addressed Fast Enough
Mercury has to come from somewhere. In most cases, it comes directly from the earth’s crust. As the industry continues to mine and burn our natural resources for fuel, such as coal, the more mercury will be released into the atmosphere as a side effect.
The primary energy sources in Pennsylvania are coal and natural gas. Both fossil fuels have a variety of environmental consequences, without even considering mercury pollution. However, it is important to note that “approximately 40 percent of the domestic mercury is released from coal burning power plants (WPC, 2011).” Considering that the total amount of coal produced a year is “1.2 billion tons” and still increasing, that is a lot of mercury pollution.
Solutions: Invest in solar panels or other forms of renewable energy. Purchase grid energy with energy companies that invest in other renewable energy sources. Live far away from coal plants.
3. Your Engagement Ring is Poisoning Brazilians… and You
Since the 2008 stock market crash, gold demand is continuously rising. Gold is considered a stable investment for those losing faith in the American dollar, and other forms of currency. In 2001, gold cost $271 per ounce and has stayed similarly low since the 1980’s. However, prices steadily increased after the 2008 stock market crash and in 2012 prices reached a peak of over $1,668 per ounce (London Gold Fixing, 2015.) With such an insanely high demand for such a limited resource, impoverished families in the Amazon rainforest have taken to mining gold for small fortunes.
The process for mining this gold is devastating for the Amazon rainforest. To sleuth through enough soil for an ounce of gold involves clear-cutting entire swaths of land, and washing away soil that has been nourishing the Amazon Rainforest for millions of years. Devastating environmental consequences aside, the final step in separating the gold from the rest of the heavy metals collected in the sleuthing is to actually burn off mercury (Aaronson, 2012.) This mercury accumulates in the atmosphere, as well as the nearby rivers and streams, subsequently poisoning the nearby river villages and cities in Brazil.
Solutions: Reconsider your need for gold. Invest in other stable assets. Only purchase gold from suppliers who are certified fair-trade distributers.
4. Coal Companies are Actually Making a Change, Quietly, But Not Fast Enough
While personal solutions can help protect oneself from overexposure to mercury, drastic change needs to be made on an industrial level in order to protect those who cannot otherwise protect themselves. Going back to coal plants, “approximately 10% of the total mercury from the coal is found in the fly ash, and the remainder exits the stack in vapor form (Merdes et al., 1998).” This means that mercury is being released directly into the air via smoke stacks, without proper precautions.
That smoke may look “clean” but there is actually mercury vapor being released through the smoke stacks. Photo credit: Emilian Robert Vicol, 2010
In order to take the next step in reducing the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere, there need to be significant changes in the way coal power is produced. “Current technology can reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 60 to 90 percent (Western Pennsylvania Conservatory, 2005).” The industry already has the technology to help reduce the amount of mercury. There may be little incentive for companies to adopt this technology, especially a struggling plant.
Companies like Calgon Carbon Corp, a local Pittsburgh manufacturer, makes systems for removing mercury, among others. “The mercury removal market represented 5 percent of its total sales in 2014. (Hurley, 2015)” The demand for these systems isn’t expected to increase until there is significant pressure from the public, or the EPA to regulate the release of mercury
Counterintuitively, the amount of mercury and the burning temperature are inversely related. “The rate of mercury evolution as a function of volatiles decreases with an increase of furnace temperature (Merdes et. al. 1998).” Therefore, the higher the coal is burned for a longer period of time, the less amount of mercury is released. See figure 1. However, burning coal at a higher rate may lead to more complications, such as more waste and a need for more equipment to burn more coal at a higher temperature.
Instinctively, the less demand for coal power, in general, will lead to less mercury waste. “When power plants control mercury, they also reduce other pollutants (Grant, 2015).” Therefore, the most effective way to reduce mercury pollution, in addition to other pollutants, is to reduce the demand for coal.
5. If Environmental Regulations Get Pulled Back, We Might See Worse Effects
In a perfect capitalistic world, the industry would regulate itself, and there would be no need for regulation or government intervention. However, that is not the world we live in and thus new policies and laws are needed to protect individuals. Such laws will impact the lives of millions of Americans, and hopefully billions around the world. For example, in 2012, the EPA “imposed new standards for mercury, lead and other toxic pollutants… removing 1.4 billion pounds a year of toxic metals discharged nationwide, including mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium (Daly, 2012).”
In order for policies like this to grab hold, they must be enforced. However, any policy is better than no policy. Now if companies don’t comply with new regulations, at least individual action can be taken against industry to make sure they comply.
While this situation looks pretty grim, and it’s not certain that anything will get better. Civilians should at least be educated about what is going on in order to be capable of demanding change. Even though it seems like things will get worse before they get better, at least it is possible for things to get better.
- Amazon Gold. Dir. Reuben Aaronson. Prod. Sarah Dupont. Amazon Gold. Amazon Aid Foundation, 2012. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <https://youtu.be/NlT5hHemvE8>.
- Daly, Matthew. EPA sets limit for toxic pollutants released into waterways. 20 September 2015. Associated Press. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/38d3ae948b504abb87b970ad1e33d3c9/epa-sets-limit-toxic-pollutants-released-waterways.
- Fitzgibbon, T.O., et al. “A preliminary study of the Hg flux from selected Ohio watersheds to Lake Erie.” Applied Geochemistry (2008).
- Grant, Julie. Supreme Court Rebukes EPA on Mercury Rules. 2 July 2015. http://www.alleghenyfront.org/story/your-environment-update-july-2-2015.
- Hopey, Don. Mercury termed a big threat to health in region. 26 January 2011. 27 October 2015. http://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2011/01/26/Mercury-termed-a-big-threat-to-health-in-region/stories/201101260170.
- Hurley, Lawrence. S. top court invalidates Obama administration EPA regulation. 29 June 2015. http://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2015/06/29/UPDATE-1-U-S-top-court-invalidates-Obama-administration-mercury-air-pollution-rule/stories/201506290146.
- London Gold Fixing. “Change in Gold Price until 2014 | Statistic.” Statista. Kitco, Jan. 15. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
- Merdes, Amy, et al. “Investigation into the fate of mercury in bituminous coal during mild pyrolysis.” Fuel (1998).
- Moore, Daniel. “Pa. Impact May Be ‘minimal’ as Supreme Court Overturns EPA’s Mercury Rule.” PowerSource: Energy News. In Context.Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 29 June 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://powersource.post-gazette.com/powersource/policy-powersource/2015/06/29/Supreme-Court-overturns-EPA-mercury-power-plant-regulations-MATS-emissions/stories/201506300088>.
- Pirrone, Nicola, Ivo Allegrini and Gerald Keeler. “Historical atmospheric mercury emissions and depositions in North America compared to mercury accumulations in sedimentary records.” Atmospheric Environment (1998).
- Richard, Michael. “IEA: World to Burn 1.2 Billion More Tons of Coal Per Year by 2017 (If We Don’t Wake Up).” TreeHugger. N.p., 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
- Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Allegheny Regional Office. Brokenstraw Creek Watershed Conservation Plan. Pittsburgh: Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, 2015.
- Western Pennsylvania Conservatory. Shenango River Watershed Conservation Plan . Blairsville, PA: Shenango River Watershed Community, 2005.
- Wines, Michael. Toxic Algae Outbreak Overwhelms a Polluted Ohio River. 30 Spetember 2015. New York Times. 27 October 2015