Mercury pollution on the rise

by Michael Smith

The fifty filthiest coal-fired plants are producing more mercury pollution than in 2006, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. Twenty tons of mercury, a neurotoxin that affects brain development in fetuses, have been released into our air by the these top fifty offenders. Although some of these plants have made strides towards producing cleaner-burning energy, most have increased their rates of mercury pollution.

The places that are most at risk in the United States are, for starters, Texas which has the dubious honor of having seven plants amongst the fifty dirtiest with five of those being in the top ten. Alabama has two plants in the top ten and four in the top fifty. It also has the greatest offender within its borders. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin and Arkansas round out the other mercury-plagued states. Minnesota gets an honorable mention for having only one plant on the list but that plant being of the dirtiest ten.

Coal-fired power plants account for 40% of all mercury emissions, and hence for the largest single source of mercury in our air. Low-level mercury poisoning is so prevalent, it is estimated that six percent of woman have enough mercury in their bodies to cause neurological damage to their unborn fetuses.

There is not a single expert who denies that mercury emissions are causing some damage to developing brains and causing drops in IQ – and there is no debate that there is a monetary cost associated with this loss. There is, however, debate within the scientific community about the actual dollar amount associated with the IQ detriments. Furthermore, recent research has specifically documented the type of damage that low levels of mercury exposure cause to developing neurons. This damage occurs even at levels of mercury exposure that would be unlikely to cause harm in an adult; but at levels that a significant portion of the child-bearing population have circulating in their bodies.

Mercury removal at coal-fired plants is possible with current technologies, but, obviously, this costs a little money and that is where, always it would seem, the problem lies.

Activated carbon injection, a sort of mercury-hungry sponge placed in the smokestack, can reduce mercury pollution by ninety percent in some instances. Combined with other technologies – sulfur dioxide scrubbers, selective catalytic reduction, fabric filters – the mercury output can be even further reduced and coal-fired power stations can be made virtually emission free – to a great degree at least.

But are coal-fired power stations really the only culprit or in fact the biggest culprit? This is a question that maybe needs answering especially as the use of mercury has risen tremendously since the introduction of the compact fluorescent light bulbs, the CFLs.

CFLs and the standard fluorescent lights contain mercury and not just traces of it and the more of those things that we need the more mercury we are going to use and the greater danger of pollution from mercury.

It is time to rethink the idea of CFLs and the banning of the incandescent light bulb. As far as I am concerned any savings that may be made by using CFLs are canceled out by the costs of those bulbs and especially the fact that the things contain mercury.

It took the industry and the authorities until after the time they declared that incandescent light bulb would be outlawed and only CFLs would be allowed to be sold and used.

Is it not worrying that we are told about the dangers of those things only after the event, so to speak. After the governments have decided – without consultations, for instance – to force us all to replace the old kind of light bulb, the one invented by Thomas Alva Edison, with those CFLs that, supposedly, are so much better for the environment.

The Edison light bulb does not contain mercury and is by far cheaper and easier and safer to manufacture than those CFLs but still the CFLs are being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread – in fact I do not believe that sliced bread was such a good invention either – and as the savior of the environment. Why are we fixing something that is not broken?

All that is needed as regards the incandescent light bulb, the good ol' Edison one, is some common sense of the people and turning lights that are not needed off.

I do not think that CFLs will do us any good in the end run and it would be better to wait and continue with the old incandescent bulbs until LEDs are of such size and quality that they can – cheaply – replace the old light bulbs.

Just some food for thought...

© M Smith (Veshengro), December 2008