Alliance for Lighting Information

Mercury Pollution Summary

by David M. Keith

Mercury pollution is a significant health threat to humans. The EPA reports that ".. when mercury enters water, biologic processes transform it into a highly toxic form that builds up in in fish and animals that eat fish." A brief discussion about mercury and human health from the the US Public Health Service, Agency for for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry is here. The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) is a trage organization for electric companies and has a report discussing mercury pollution from utility power generation. A report from the Clean Air Task Force addresses concerns about mercury pollution from midwest power plants, and includes a brief history of efforts to control mercury and many references. According to the Mercury Policy Project, from a statement released on 7 October 2004:

Industrial mercury pollution is prevalent and at critically dangerous 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 (see press release).

The Mercury Policy Project also reports that "Recent EPA estimates indicate that one in six women of childbearing age has blood mercury levels that exceed what is safe for a fetus" and quotes the Attorney General of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, "Mercury is a neurotoxin ... there is no safe level of mercury in the environment."

The EPA has established a reference dose of 0.1 microgram of mercury per day per kilogram of body weight. This means that for a 45 lb child, the reference dose is 2 micrograms per day, while for a 165 lb person (75 kg) the dose is 7.5 micrograms per day or 53 micrograms per week or 2.74 mg anually.

The public broadcasting show NOW with Bill Moyers has a brief discussion about mercury in fish that shows that "by eating six ounces of chunk white tuna a week, a child is ingesting almost four times EPA's recommended dose" for mercury. A recent news report by a Wisconsin TV station reports that every lake and river in that state has a mercury advisory for fish consumption, and that nearly one in five Wisconsin residents has "unsafe levels of mercury."

The lighting industry is involved with mercury in two principal ways - from power generation and from lamp production/disposal. Mercury from power generation is mostly from coal plants, adressed by the Clean Air and New Source Review efforts required by US law, as discussed in a EPA news release of 30 Nov 2004. Mercury is used in all fluorescent and metal halide lamps, as well as some (older technology) high pressure sodium lamps. Induction lamps are essentially fluorescent and contain mercury. Lamp manufacturers have worked to specifically reduce mercury (and lead) use and have made progress, but still some lamps - "all" metal halide for example - fail the TCLP test and therefore are considered hazardous waste.

There is a discussion about mercury from power plants that develops the annual per citizen mercury pollution from EPA estimates of power plant emissions.

There is a discussion about mercury from lamps that develops the annual per citizen mercury pollution from NEPA estimates of installed lamps and ALI information on the mercury content of HID lamps and the mercury content of fluorescent lamps.

Comparison of these evaluations makes it clear that to most effectively reduce mercury pollution, the lighting industry should be focused of reducing energy use, while continuing to promote suitable lamp disposal, recycling, development and production.

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