“Oh, goody…we’re going to have tons of a highly toxic substance stored down the street!” File that under “Phrases We’ll Never Hear.” A recent Associated Press article describes the challenge of finding a place to store the U.S.’s “excess mercury deposits.” The federal government is considering sites in seven states, but there is unsurprisingly strong opposition from local residents in most of the targeted areas. Mercury is highly toxic to living things: even small amounts of exposure can damage the human brain, kidneys, and other organs.
The effort to find a storage site for an estimated 17,000 tons of mercury stems from a bill introduced by a certain Senator Obama, and signed into law last October by President Bush. S.906, the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008, mandates that US exports of mercury cease by 2013, and requires the Department of Energy to select and manage a facility for the long-term disposal of mercury. Also last year, the European Union banned mercury exports as of 2011. This month, NGOs in Japan have launched a similar effort.
While mercury is gradually being prohibited in electronics (and hopefully soon from dental amalgams) in the U.S. and Europe, mercury was being exported to developing countries with laxer standards for releasing the toxin. In many cases, the exported mercury is finding its way into rivers and oceans, where fish absorb it, and those fish are being sent right back…to the consumer.
Mercury is often used in the developing world’s businesses in ways that pollute air and water leading to terrible health consequences. It’s good that, four years from now, it will no longer be legal for the U.S. to export this particular dangerous neurotoxin to the rest of the world. It’s one small step on the long road to sustainable, responsible living, and the Care2 community has been vocal on many aspects of mercury pollution. Let’s keep up the pressure and keep trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle….in that order. The problem of what to do with the mercury that we have, that needs to be stored safely, haunts us…wherever we live.
A typical mercury storage configuration. Photo courtesy Defense National Stockpile Center