Reducing Risks from Mercury
More on Reducing Risks from Specific Chemicals
Mercury is contained in some of the products we use and in some of the fish we eat. It can be found in your home, in health-care facilities and in schools. EPA’s long-term goal is to reduce risks associated with mercury. Almost all people have at least trace amounts of mercury in their tissues. Mercury can affect the nervous system. People are mainly exposed to methylmercury, an organic compound, when they eat fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury. Still developing, fetuses, infants and children are particularly sensitive to the effects of methylmercury on the nervous system.
The primary pathway of human exposure to mercury is through eating fish containing methylmercury. Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Research shows that most people’s fish consumption does not cause a health concern. Fish that are higher in the food chain have much higher methylmercury concentrations than fish that are lower in the food chain. Individuals may also become exposed to harmful levels of elemental mercury vapor found indoors in work places and homes. When exposed to air, elemental mercury vaporizes and can be inhaled. The number of individuals exposed in the United States in this way is very small.
Because mercury is a problem that knows no geographic boundaries, EPA’s work has an international component. Mercury can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere before it is eventually deposited back to the Earth in rainfall or in dry gaseous forms (see Mercury Emissions: The Global Context). Current estimates are that less than half of all mercury deposition within the United States comes from U.S. sources (see Mercury: Basic Information).
OPPT led the development of EPA's Roadmap for Mercury published in July 2006. The Roadmap describes the Agency's progress to date in dealing with mercury issues domestically and internationally, and outlines EPA's major ongoing and planned actions to address risks associated with mercury.
- EPA continued to implement key commitments in the Roadmap for Mercury. In 2007, OPPT focused on reducing mercury in domestic products and promoting stakeholders’ understanding of the impacts associated with long-term management of excess commodity-grade mercury.
- OPPT, with several other federal partners, hosted four stakeholder-panel meetings with technical experts and interested parties to assess options for managing non-federal stocks of commodity-grade elemental mercury. Held between May and September 2007, 14 stakeholders were panel members at these public meetings, representing a balanced mix of industry, academia, non-governmental organizations, and states. An interagency workgroup assessed the input received during the stakeholder process and is initiating a separate interagency process to analyze and better understand the issues associated with a ban on the export of mercury from the United States.
- On October 5, 2007, OPPT issued a final Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) to address the use of new mercury switches in motor vehicles. Automakers voluntarily discontinued use of certain mercury switches in vehicles in 2003. The SNUR will give EPA the opportunity to evaluate the potential risks of resuming the use of elemental mercury in the switches, and, if necessary, to prohibit or limit their use to prevent unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.
- OPPT began working with states to promote recycling, collection, and reduction of mercury-containing products such as mercury thermostats and non-fever thermometers.
- OPPT has provided continued leadership and resources to support the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Partnerships aimed at addressing risks associated with mercury uses, releases and exposure. Current partnerships include pilot projects in five key sectors:
- Chlor-alkali facilities
- Fate and transport research
- Artisanal and small-scale gold mining
- Coal combustion
- Mercury products
OPPT attended the 24th session of the UNEP Governing Council in February 2007, at which UNEP encouraged continued action and support for implementing the Global Partnerships for Mercury , among other steps.
- As the lead of the Mercury Reductions Products Partnership, OPPT made substantial progress in 2007 by developing formal partnerships with other countries to reduce mercury in products. This partnership seeks to transfer best practices related to reducing releases from the manufacture, use, and disposal of mercury-containing products by identifying effective substitutes.
The partnership has increased in number to include:
- Mexico, China, Costa Rica, and Argentina, which are reducing mercury in hospitals.
- Burkina Faso, South Africa, Chile, Ecuador, Panama and Mexico, which are conducting mercury product inventories, market studies and mercury risk management projects.
- OPPT co-hosted "Mercury In Our World: Conference on Mercury and Other Hazardous Chemicals in Southeast Asia Schools," in Bangkok, Thailand, April 22-24, 2008. Other conference sponsors were Thailand's Pollution Control Department, UNEP, and Merck Thailand. The conference was designed to be a train-the-trainer session for university and high school students, teachers, and school administrators, enabling them to return to their countries and schools and share what they had learned about safe management and disposal of mercury and other hazardous chemicals. Instruction manuals aimed at teachers/administrators and students were developed and shared at the conference, emphasizing the importance of:
- Mercury and chemical management,
- Identification of hazardous chemicals and equipment in schools, and
- Policies and actions for school administrators and teachers.
The student manuals also contained information for student projects and activities designed to solidify their understanding of international chemical symbols, where hazardous chemicals are typically found in schools, identifying specific hazards, scenario role playing, and student projects using various media to present the message.
Read more information on OPPT's work on a mercury-related partnership: Partnership for Sustainable Healthcare (PSH).
View EPA's Mercury Web page.