07.09.09

Whitehouse Sponsors Legislation to Reduce Mercury Pollution

Washington, D.C. - Despite the health and environmental risks of mercury pollution, some plants in the U.S. that manufacture the industrial chemicals chlorine and caustic soda still use outdated technology that significantly increases their mercury emissions. Today, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced legislation that would require these facilities to begin using mercury-free technology within two years.

"Mercury contamination in our air, land and water is a serious health threat, and when there's technology readily available to reduce mercury pollution, we should use it," said Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) cosponsored the bill, which was originally authored by then-Senator Barack Obama. The Obama Administration has called on the international community to step up efforts to reduce mercury pollution.

High levels of mercury in people can result in muscle weakness and other potentially serious nervous system impairments. Pregnant women and children are particularly susceptible to these risks. As many as 10 percent of women of childbearing age in the U.S. have mercury in their bloodstreams at a level that could pose risks to their unborn babies; and each year, hundreds of thousands of American newborns are at risk of neurological problems related to mercury exposure in utero.

In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned women and children to limit their consumption of fish known to have high levels of mercury contamination, which include many larger fishes such as tuna and shark.

Fugitive emissions from outdated mercury-cell production processes used to make chlorine and caustic soda contributes to the accumulation of mercury contamination in nearby soil and waterways and in the air. Chlorine is used to make a wide variety of industrial and commercial products, including plastics, disinfectants, and in water treatment plants. Caustic soda is commonly applied in waste paper treatment and in the production of textiles, detergents, bleach, petroleum products, and other chemicals.

Mercury-free "chlor-alkali" production methods already exist and are used by 95 percent of chlorine production facilities in the United States. According to the environmental advocacy group Oceana, the facilities still using mercury-cell technology to produce these chemicals could actually increase their production capacity, conserve energy, and save money by switching to mercury-free production methods.

Whitehouse's Mercury Pollution Reduction Act (S. 1428) would amend the Toxic Substances Control ACT (TSCA) to require these facilities to phase out their use of mercury within two years. The bill has been endorsed by a number of environmental organizations, including Oceana, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Sierra Club, and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

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