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What Mercury Problem?

February 14, 2005

Later this month, Europe and other industrialized regions will grapple with the problem of mercury pollution. The United States, apparently, will continue to pretend it doesn't exist.

Like greenhouse gases, mercury is a global rather than local problem. The metal, a liquid at room temperature, vaporizes easily, traveling the world's air currents and settling into waterways, where it has become so common in ocean fish that pregnant women and young children, the most vulnerable, are warned to severely limit their consumption of seafood, and everyone is told not to eat too much swordfish and other predator fish. In humans, it turns into highly toxic methyl mercury, which can cause memory lapses and increase the risk of heart attacks.

In advance of a United Nations meeting on mercury pollution in Nairobi that opens Feb. 21, the European Union is vowing to close its one mercury mine, in Almaden, Spain, by far the biggest in the world, and store existing mercury rather than sell it on the global market. The EU also is open to a global treaty.

Documents submitted by the U.S. government, meanwhile, present no specific goals or steps, reject the idea of a treaty, call vaguely for voluntary partnerships, and offer to teach others about "best practices." That's a curious phrase coming from the nation just criticized by its own Environmental Protection Agency inspector general for violating scientific procedures in order to come up with an industry-friendly regulation of coal plants, probably the biggest source of mercury emissions in this country.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 16, 2005 Home Edition California Part B Page 10 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Mercury -- An editorial Monday on mercury regulations stated that mercury turns to methyl mercury in the human body. Though some scientists say it is possible for this change to occur in the body, the vast majority of methyl mercury exposure for humans comes from eating fish already containing the substance.

Coal isn't the only concern. Mercury also is used to produce chlorine, and the 11 plants in the United States that still use such a process cannot account for about 65 tons of mercury a year that simply vanishes. That's on top of the 14 tons the plants emit through smokestacks and leakage. Europe has chlorine plants, but it has much stronger regulations on mercury emissions.

Mercury is plentiful and cheap, making its continued use tempting even though technology has rendered it unnecessary for most purposes. More-advanced chlorine plants don't use it. The United States and Europe already have banned batteries containing mercury, once a common component.

It will take a concerted leadership effort and specific steps to reduce contamination. U.S. officials point out that even if they were to clean up mercury here, it wouldn't do much good unless Asia could be persuaded to do the same. That continent is responsible for half the mercury emissions worldwide.

But that's all the more reason the U.S. should set an example by drastically cutting mercury emissions as well as reducing both supply and demand. After the embarrassing revelations about the EPA's failure on coal plants, high-flown talk about "sharing best practices" won't persuade anyone that the U.S. is doing its share.

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