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Regulating Mercury Emissions from Power Plants: Will It Protect Our Health?


While the ACSH report clearly states that about forty percent of the mercury released to air every year as a result of human activities in the US comes from electric power generation, this number is relativised by the statement  that electricity generation contributes only 10 percent of total US mercury emissions when natural sources are included. Looking at the global scale, the report states that the US electricity generation contributes a mere 1 percent of total mercury emissions and Asia alone accounts for more than half of the world's mercury emissions. According to the data given in the report, human activities account for about 45 % of the global mercury emission (see figure above on the left).

Looking at bit closer at the given numbers, they do not seem consistent. The same report states that air levels of mercury have tripled since 1971 as the number of coal-burning plants worldwide has increased. How could such development be possible, if human activities account only for 45% of the total mercury emission?

Another argument outlined in the ACSH report is that methylmercury in sea fish presenting a health risk for human consumers is not linked to mercury in air but has its source in deep ocean sediments. This argument is totally missing the numerous reports on the mercury contamination of the US environment and its wildlife, and the nation wide fish advisories of nearly all US states (see EVISA News).

The report then presents some doubts that a real health risk for humans is existing, since the mean methylmercury concentration found in the blood of pregnant women in a CDC Survey in 2002 was in average 0.92 ppb, well below the so called "safety limit" set by EPA at 5.8 ppb. Such argumentation fails however to assess the risk for groups of the population, who do not behave as the mean because of their preference for fish meals. The ACSH report comes to the conclusion that with 6% of the women having methylmercury levels above the safety limit, "methylmercury levels in children and women of childbearing age are almost always below levels of concern".

As a final conclusion, the report summarizes that "most global mercury emissions come from human activities outside of the US. These emissions are likely to increase globally as more coal burning power plants are built. Because there appears to be little relationship between mercury emissions from US coal-fired plants and methylmercury exposure from eating fish, reducing US power plant mercury emissions-using either a "cap-and-trade" or MACT approach-should not be over-emphasized as a means of giving greater protection to pregnant women and children".

Of course one can argue whether the "cap-and-trade" or the MACT approach would be better suited to reduce the mercury emission of the USA. However one should bear in mind that it was the claimed "high efficiency" and "cost-benefit advantage" of the CAT approach that was used by the Bush administration to block a more global approach discussed by UNEP.

With 191 states being member of the United Nations, it is not surprising that each one contributes to the global mercury pollution only in the order of percent. Therefore, for fighting mercury pollution every member state has to do its homework. However, from a leading nation one would expect a leading role in the efforts to reduce the global pollution.
With respect to local "hot-spots", it is very likely that the distribution of mercury species being emitted from the power plants dictates whether mercury is entering the global pollution pool (export of the problem) or is being deposited close to the emission site. Speciation analysis therefore will play a major role in elucidating the atmospheric chemistry of mercury responsible for the deposition of mercury and its path entering the food-web.
Last but not least one should bear in mind that mercury pollution is not only a health risk for pregnant women and young children but for all life in the contaminated environment.

Michael Sperling

Related Studies
Mercury as an atmospheric pollutant in the US
 E.B. Swain, D.R. Engstrom, M.E. Brigham, T.A. Henning, P.L. Brezonik, Increasing rates of atmospheric mercury deposition in midcontinental, Science, 256 (1992) 784-787. DOI: 10.1126/science.257.5071.784

 Prasad Pai, David Niemi, Bill Powers, A North American inventory of anthropogenic mercury emissions, Fuel Process. Technol., 65-66 (2000) 101-115. DOI: 10.1016/S0378-3820(99)00079-X

 Paul F. Schuster, David P. Krabbenhoft, David L. Naftz, L. Dewayne Cecil, Mark L. Olson, John F. Dewild, David D. Susong, J.R. Green, M.L. Abbott, Atmospheric Mercury Deposition during the Last 270 Years: A Glacial Ice Core Record of Natural and Anthropogenic Sources, Environ. Sci. Technol., 36/11 (2002) 2303-2310. DOI: 10.1021/es0157503

 C. Walcek, S. De Santis, T. Gentile, Preparation of mercury emissions inventory for eastern North America, Environ. Pollut., 123/3 (2003) 375-381. DOI: 10.1016/S0269-7491(03)00028-9

 Christian Seigneur, Krish Vijayaraghavan, Kristen Lohman, Prakash Karamchandani, Courtney Scott, Global Source Attribution for Mercury Deposition in the United States, Environ. Sci. Technol., 38/2 (2004) 555-569. DOI: 10.1021/es034109t

 C. Seigneur, K. Lohman, K. Vijayaraghavan, R.-L. Shia, Contributions of global and regional sources to mercury deposition in New York State, Environ. Pollut., 123/3 (2003) 365-373. DOI: 10.1016/S0269-7491(03)00027-7
Mercury speciation in the atmosphere and in stack gases
 A. Carpi, Mercury from combustion sources: a review of the chemical species emitted and their transport in the atmosphere, Water, Air, Soil Pollut., 98 (1997) 241-254. DOI:

 S.E. Lindberg, W.J. Stratton, Atmospheric Mercury Speciation: Concentration and Behavior of Reactive Gaseous Mercury in Ambient Air, Environ. Sci. Technol., 32/1 (1998) 49-57. DOI: 10.1021/es970546u

 Constance L. Senior, Adel F. Sarofim, Taofang Zeng, Joseph J. Helble, Mamani-Paco, Gas-phase transformations of mercury in coal-fired power plants, Fuel Process. Technol., 63/2-3 (2000) 197-213. DOI: 10.1016/S0378-3820(99)00097-1

 Yewen Tan, Renata Mortazavi, Bob Dureau, Mark A. Douglas, An investigation of mercury distribution and speciation during coal combustion, Fuel, 83 (2004) 2229-2236. DOI: 10.1016/j.fuel.2004.06.015

 Marie-Pierre Pavageau, Anne Morin, Fabienne Seby, Claude Guimon, Eva Krupp, Christophe Pécheyran, Jean Poulleau, Olivier F.X. Donard, Partitioning of Metal Species during an Enriched Fuel Combustion Experiment Speciation in the Gaseous and Particulate Phases, Environ. Sci. Technol., 38/7 (2004) 2252-2263. DOI: 10.1021/es034408i
Mercury in the US population
 Kathryn R. Mahaffey, Robert P. Clickner, Catherine C. Bodurow, Blood Organic Mercury and Dietary Mercury Intake: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999 and 2000, Environ. Health Perspect., 112/5 (2004) 562-570. DOI: 10.1289/ehp.6587
Related News

Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, 2006: Stop Mercury Pollution
Precaution.org, February 2, 2006: The failure of chemical regulation: The case of  mercury
 The Boston Globe, April 13, 2006: Court says EPA can't withhold documents on mercury emissions plan
The Boston Globe, April 14, 2006: EPA is ordered to release documents on mercury rule
Jurist, April 14, 2006: Environmental brief ~ Judge orders EPA to disclose mercury rule documents
DNA World, April 14, 2006: ‘Unfair to blame China, India alone for pollution’
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection,  May  15, 2006:  Supporters of EPA's Mercury Rule Downplay Serious Dangers of Toxic Pollution
Reuters, May 31, 2006: EPA holds course on utility mercury rules
Environmental Science & Technology, News, June 15, 2006: Unknown mechanism for airborne mercury
The Hindu, July 2, 2006:  U.S. power plants emit more mercury: study
The Oregonian, July 19, 2006: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality tightens mercury controls
OregonLive.com, August 4, 2006: Cement plant Oregon's largest source of airborne mercury
Natural Resource Council of Maine, October 22, 2006: Vt. researchers rebut EPA theory on mercury pollution
EarthJustice.org, December 11, 2006: EPA Fails to Limit Toxic Mercury Pollution from Cement Kilns
Environmental Science & Technolgy, February 15, 2007: Mercury control costs drop

last time modified: January 15, 2016


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