Combating the Global Mercury Problem

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw around, "lives a Hatter; and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like; they're both mad." And so Alice – and the world – was introduced to the most famous sufferer of mercury poisoning, the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In 19th century England, hat makers, who were exposed to mercury in compounds used to treat felt, were among the first victims of mercury poisoning. They suffered from tremors, brain damage, insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, and of course, "madness." Today, mercury exposure endangers workers across industries and people around the world.

At a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) meeting in Nairobi last week, nations grappled with how to deal with global mercury pollution. In preparation for the meeting, the European Commission had proposed a bold plan to reduce the trade, mining, and emission of mercury. In addition to phasing out mercury-cell chlorine production, the European Union (EU) decided it will close the largest mercury mine in Europe, located in Almaden, Spain, and will phase out exportation of mercury from EU member states by 2011. That means less mercury will end up on the global market and ultimately in the developing world – where regulation of mercury is even less stringent – for use in chlorine production, gold mining, and batteries.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s policy going into Nairobi failed to make any significant contribution to the global effort to reduce human exposure to mercury. Rather than take charge to protect Americans, as well as people throughout the world, the administration chose to drag its feet by calling for self-regulation, more talk, more studies, and no concrete action. As a result, all that came out of the UNEP conference were a set of recommendations and partnerships, all of which were entirely voluntary.

But despite the outcome of the UNEP conference, the risks of mercury remain glaringly clear. Since the pre-industrial era, mercury concentrations in air and water have shown a two- to four-fold increase. All the oceans of the world have mercury-contaminated fish, which is the greatest source of mercury ingested by humans, according to the UNEP. One in six women in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to pose a risk to a developing fetus, meaning that each year we are risking the health and safety of some 630,000 newborns in the United States alone.

Mercury is particularly injurious to children and infants, harming the brain and nervous system and stunting development, causing learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and mental retardation. The European Food Safety Authority has estimated that almost half (44 percent) of young children in France may be ingesting mercury at levels higher than the U.S. National Research Council has deemed safe.

And for workers, mercury poisoning did not end with the popularity of felt hats. Today, small-scale gold miners in the developing world have the most severe mercury-related occupational exposures. As much as 95 percent of the mercury mixed with gold ore in small scale mining is released into the environment, much of it as vapors from intense heating, which exposes miners and bystanders alike to toxic fumes. For each gram of gold produced in this way, an estimated two grams of mercury are released into the environment.

But even mine workers in the developed world are at risk. According to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, almost 13 percent of silver and gold mine workers in the United States have dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies. Of these, 50 percent had levels twice the permissible limit, and some workers had up to 50 times the safe level. Families of mine workers around the world are also at risk from trace mercury brought into their homes on mine workers’ clothing.

In addition to miners, mercury endangers workers in coal-fired power plants; older, mercury-cell chlorine-producing (chlor-alkali) plants; and waste disposal facilities, especially when products containing even trace amounts of mercury are broken or burned during disposal.

We know the Bush administration can do better than the position adopted in Nairobi. Last year, the Defense Department issued new rules to store, rather than export, mercury stockpiles—an encouraging move that prevented several thousand tons of mercury from entering the world market. But the Defense Department’s move was just a start, and more action is desperately needed.

To protect workers across industries and people around the world, we encourage the European Commission to pursue its plans to reduce the trade, mining, and emission of mercury despite the results of the UNEP meeting. We urge the Bush administration to reconsider its opposition to ambitious standards for immediate mercury reductions like those proposed by the Europeans. We have the technologies to greatly reduce global mercury pollution. Now we need the political will and international cooperation to implement them to protect the health of all.

John Podesta is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progress and is a former chief of staff to President Clinton. John Monks is head of the European Trades Union Congress.