Julie Carr Smyth
The Associated Press
COLUMBUS — Schools are purging old thermometer supplies. The future of light-up shoes is on the rocks. And states are questioning America’s need for blinking jewelry, flashing greeting cards and twinkling Christmas lights, all containing toxic mercury.
Amid the consumer products scramble, however, coal-fired power plants responsible for the bulk of the mercury still circulating into the nation’s air have been given two deadlines, in 2010 and 2018, to reduce their mercury emissions by 70 percent.
Since 1990, as a national crackdown has reduced overall mercury emissions by half, emissions by coal-burning power plants have remained relatively constant, falling from 51 tons in 1990 to 48 tons in 1999 nationwide, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics.
In that same period, mercury coming from medical waste incinerators and city-run trash-burning power plants has been almost eliminated through new regulations, and non-utility polluters have reduced the mercury they emit by about 5 tons, data show.
No facility can safely emit more than 5 pounds of mercury a day, or less than a ton a year, EPA guidelines say. And individual states are subject to federal caps that may require even lower mercury emissions from individual plants to reach national goals.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking these mercury-containing products off the market,” said Sandy Buchanan, director of the consumer watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action. “If you want the low-hanging fruit, sure, go ahead, but 87 percent of the tree (coming from waste combustion and coal burning) is left standing.”
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that falls into water when released and ends up in the food chain. Pregnant or nursing women who eat mercury-tainted fish can unwittingly cause brain damage in their children.
In dozens of states, lawmakers have outlawed an array of consumer products containing mercury, including figurines, practical joke supplies and other toys, games, greeting cards, holiday ornaments and yard statues, candles, and jewelry, footwear and other apparel. In Ohio such a ban starts in April.
Laws around the country also have targeted schoolhouse mercury thermometers, mercury switches in automobiles, dental fillings and mercury used in medical implants and vaccines.
Civil penalties can range from less than $100 to $25,000.
All told, more than 200 bills on mercury have been introduced in at least 30 state Legislatures since 2000, most involving consumer products, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Compliance deadlines have been extended in many states for consumer products whose only mercury is in the button-cell battery required to operate them, because the battery industry has imposed its own deadline of 2011 for eliminating the mercury those contain.
Mark Kohorst, senior manager for environment, health and safety at the American Electrical Manufacturers Association that represents battery makers, said button batteries have been carved out of state bans because no workable alternative has been invented.
“People with hearing aids, watches — any number of other consumer products — would be in trouble,” he said.
John Millett, a spokesman for the U.S. EPA, concedes that consumer products are not causing the worst of the nation’s mercury problems. But he said controlling them is still important.
“The thought behind the consumer products stuff is the more you move over to alternatives and the less mercury you have out there, the less we’re exposed to,” he said. “There you have a situation where a little bit in a lot of things adds up to a lot.”
Mercury is still useful, he said. “We just have to be a lot smarter in the way we route the waste mercury for these industries.”