Study shows mercury levels from products decreasing, though still at dangerous levels

May 6, 2008

A recent study shows that mercury releases from products in the U.S. declined dramatically between 1990 and 2005, but that they continue to be a significant source of environmental contamination. Mercury released from products contributes nearly one-third of total mercury emissions to the air in the U.S. The findings offer a new view into the relative magnitudes of the different sources of mercury release.

Release of mercury to the environment is a serious problem and can harm the development of a fetus if the mother is exposed to high levels. Mercury also frequently accumulates in fish populations. A number of highly-used products release mercury throughout their lifecycles, often in ways that are difficult to measure directly. Therefore, there are considerable uncertainties about the magnitude of mercury release into the environment that is associated with these products.

The study, published in Journal of Industrial Ecology, uses a method called substance flow analysis to develop improved estimates of the environmental releases caused by mercury-containing products and to provide policy-makers with a better understanding of opportunities for reducing releases of mercury into the environment.

“Mercury-containing products such as thermometers, switches and dental products release mercury throughout the product life-cycle, including during production, use and disposal,” says Alexis Cain, lead author of the study and an environmental scientist with the EPA. “Substance flow analysis can be used to estimate the mercury releases to air, land and water at different stages of a product lifecycle. It can also help identify actions that would be effective in minimizing mercury releases.”

The disposal of mercury containing products has been the subject of public debate in recent years. Campaigns have been started to eliminate mercury thermometers and to discontinue mercury use in energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs. There is also controversy revolving around who should pay for the separate disposal of mercury containing switches and headlights removed from cars before they are crushed and recycled.

The study shows that in 2000, mercury releases caused by mercury-containing products accounted for an estimated 32 percent of mercury releases to air, 2 percent of mercury releases to land, and 4 percent of mercury releases to water. Significant sources of mercury releases include emissions from steel furnaces because of mercury containing devices in autos and other scrapped equipment, from transport and storage of waste because of broken mercury equipment, from cremations because of the mercury contained in dental amalgam used for tooth fillings, and from burn barrels used for trash disposal in rural areas.

The model can be used as a predictive tool to evaluate the potential impact of measures to reduce the use of mercury, to improve the management of mercury wastes or to reduce mercury releases through the installation of mercury control technologies.

Source: Wiley

Explore further: When eating fish is a health hazard

Related Stories

When eating fish is a health hazard

September 14, 2015

Fish farmed or caught near the world's great industrial growth areas run the risk of spreading toxic contamination up the food chain and poisoning consumers.

Drilling boom brings rising number of harmful waste spills

September 8, 2015

Carl Johnson and son Justin are third- and fourth-generation ranchers who for decades have battled oilfield companies that left a patchwork of barren earth where the men graze cattle in the high plains of New Mexico. Blunt ...

The Planet Saturn

August 3, 2015

The farthest planet from the Sun that be observed with the naked eye, the existence of Saturn has been known for thousands of years. And much like all celestial bodies that can be observed with the aid of instruments – ...

Recommended for you

Horn of Africa drying ever faster as climate warms

October 9, 2015

The Horn of Africa has become increasingly arid in sync with the global and regional warming of the last century and at a rate unprecedented in the last 2,000 years, according to new research led by a University of Arizona ...

Could 'The Day After Tomorrow' happen?

October 9, 2015

A researcher from the University of Southampton has produced a scientific study of the climate scenario featured in the disaster movie 'The Day After Tomorrow'.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.