Mercury in retrograde: Tracking down a toxic threat

Mercury is magic. The silvery element is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature.

Mercury is also poison. It's a potent neurotoxin that can inflict damage on many parts of the human body. What’s worse, mercury can build up through the food chain, bioaccumulating until animals at the top — like orcas, raptors and humans — get a concentrated dose.

It’s no wonder, then, that cleaning up mercury contamination and getting mercury out of the environment has been a priority at Ecology for decades. Back in 2003, our first chemical action plan — a comprehensive plan to prioritize ways to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals — was on mercury.

This week, the fight against mercury is getting a global perspective as the illustriously titled “Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury” takes place in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Minamata Convention may sound like the title of a spy thriller, but it’s really a global treaty to protect human health from the toxic effects of mercury. The United States is a signatory to the convention.

The Washington Legislature passed the Mercury Education and Reduction Act, or MERA, in 2003. MERA bans the sale of some mercury-containing products (such as thermometers and sphygmomanometers), and requires labeling light bulbs that contain mercury. Washington is also a member of the Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse, a nine-state collaborative working together on mercury issues.

To recap, we’ve got highly toxic metals, global treaties, interstate cabals, mysterious acronyms, and whatever the heck a sphygmomanometer is — when does Jason Bourne swing into action?

Unfortunately, the super spy is fictional and thus unavailable, so it’s up to all of us to get rid of mercury. The good news is that we’re making progress!

What we’re doing

Along with MERA, Washington has long been leading the way in reducing mercury:

  • In 2006, Ecology and the Washington State Dental Association signed an agreement to advance the use of amalgam separators in dentists’ offices (mercury amalgam, used in tooth fillings, is a major source of mercury entering the environment). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted similar rules earlier this year.
  • mercury auto switches
    Since 2006, Ecology has offered a “bounty” to auto recyclers to remove mercury switches from wrecked cars. So far, the program has collected more than 263,000 mercury switches, keeping more than 580 pounds of mercury out of the environment.
  • In 2011, the Washington Legislature passed a law phasing out the state's last coal-fired power plant by 2025. Burning coal is another major source of mercury emissions.
  • At the Georgia-Pacific West site in Bellingham, Ecology oversaw the removal of 3,550 tons of mercury contaminated soil in 2013-14. Another 900 tons of soil is being removed this this year.
  • In 2015, Washington launched LightRecycle, a program to collect and recycle fluorescent lights and other types of lights that contain mercury. So far, LightRecycle has collected more than 2 million lights.
    LightRecycle Washington
  • In 2015, Ecology conducted an enforcement exercise, looking for mercury-containing instruments from online retailers. This exercise led to more than 1,100 products being removed from sale (including sphygmomanometers!). Ecology’s toxics reduction staff also work with hospitals and medical offices to replace mercury-containing instruments.

Is it working?

With all of this work going on, it might seem like mercury levels in the environment would be plummeting across Washington. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of mercury released in the last hundred years and it doesn’t disappear overnight.

2014 Ecology study of mercury levels in fish around Washington found that levels were steady or slightly rising in most of the water bodies we tested.

There’s better news from our ongoing monitoring of mercury levels coming from wastewater treatment plants (which end up with trace levels of mercury from a variety of sources, making them a good proxy of our efforts to remove mercury). Mercury levels in this metric are down 66 percent since 1995.

So, we’re clearly making progress at reducing mercury at the source — be that source a power plant or a tooth filling. Eventually, we expect this progress to work its way through the system, leaving Washington with a cleaner, healthier environment.

Consider it a case study for those folks meeting this week in Geneva at the Minamata Convention: Commitment and hard work can make a big difference on mercury.