Mercury rises as latest environmental worry

Blood Brothers Auto Wreckers is getting a 1988 Buick Century ready for its final ride – into the giant maw of a crusher that will flatten it like a crumpled soda can. But first, the company has to remove something dangerous from the stripped-down sedan: the small light switch that automatically comes on when the hood is opened. The switch, about the size of a pencil eraser, contains one gram of mercury, a toxin.

"We just rip it out, and the car will go in the crusher after that," says Doriano Totis, one of the owners at Blood Brothers.

In the past, wreckers and junkyards didn't worry about these small amounts of mercury. But the prospect of the silvery-colored metallic element accumulating in riverbeds, lakes, and oceans has alarmed everyone from lawmakers to businesspeople to environmentalists.

Seven states have passed some form of legislation on disposing of the substance, labeling it, or phasing it out, and there are 50 bills pending in 20 more states. Last month, Maine became the first state to require car companies to take financial responsibility for the mercury in their cars. And two weeks ago, Westchester County in New York State required wreckers like Blood Brothers to remove the mercury light switches.

Moreover, the White House has agreed to form an interagency task force "to develop and improve sound science-based policies to address mercury." Even the American Dental Association, which has long defended the use of mercury in fillings, is reassessing the effectiveness of technology to capture it after patients are treated in dentist offices. And by this September, the United Nations hopes to have completed a global assessment of mercury.

"What we are seeing is a combination of public awareness and policy actions by decisionmakers to address a solvable problem," says Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Institute in Montpelier, Vt.

In fact, businesses have been making huge strides to reduce their use of mercury. In the 1960s, they annually consumed 3,000 tons of the toxic substance. Now, the Department of the Interior estimates that annual consumption is down to 200 tons.

Despite the reduction, a problem of significant size remains. In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 158 tons of mercury was emitted into the air, but environmentalists say that number is too low. Cars on the road may contain as much as 200 metric tons total in light switches, antilock brakes, high-intensity headlights, and the new navigational systems, estimates the Clean Car Campaign, a national initiative coordinated by various environmental groups. Mercury is still used in everything from switches in gas stoves to bilge pumps on boats.

Some of that mercury ends up in wastewater and rivers and lakes. For example, the Blood Brothers' wrecking yard is not far from the Sheldrake River, which drains into Long Island Sound.

"What happens is when you crush cars and the mercury goes on the ground, it gets washed into the aquifers. It affects a great deal, especially as it accumulates," says Andrew Spano, the Westchester County executive who signed the new law mandating switch removals. "It takes less than a teaspoon of mercury to contaminate a lake and result in health warnings about eating fish caught there."

As a result of the mercury accumulation, 41 states have issued a fish advisory, either warning pregnant women and children not to eat certain species or suggesting only limited monthly consumption of some fish.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration advised pregnant women and those of child-bearing age who might become pregnant to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. The FDA, which before this had not made its plans public, says it will expand its mercury testing to include more fish. "In a number of species, we have enough information, and in others, we don't have enough information," says Michael Bolger, a scientist with the FDA.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get rid of the mercury. "If we stopped using mercury today, it would take 15 to 50 years until the levels are down so species of fish are safe to eat," says Mr. Bender.

Environmentalists who have allied themselves with some business groups would like to see federal legislation to deal with the issue comprehensively. "We'd like to see a national solution in the interest of consistency," says Robin Wiener of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which is a partner with environmentalist groups. "But in the absence of that – and we know Congress has a very full agenda – we'll do it on a state-by-state basis."

The states with legislation started their control efforts with the products that are easy to corral. For example, many states, and even some cities such as Boston and San Francisco, now ban fever thermometers that use mercury. "We have found they do break frequently," says Terri Goldberg of the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association in Boston.

In 1997, Vermont passed legislation requiring that products from thermostats to lamps warn consumers if mercury is used. "The intent of the law was to cover as many consumer products as possible and make sure they don't get thrown into the waste treatment but get recycled instead," says Ron Shems, a former assistant attorney general in Vermont.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association sued the state over the law, maintaining its members couldn't label products just for Vermont. Lower courts ruled in favor of the state, and last week, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, in essence validating the law.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is now considering options including litigation to try to stop Maine's new law. The legislation is "requiring us to set up a business we are not involved in: waste handling," says Greg Dana, vice president for environmental affairs at the alliance.

Mr. Dana notes that automobile companies are almost through phasing out the use of mercury switches. Only two models, the GM G-Van and an older Jeep, still use them.

The difference in cost between mercury and an alternative is minuscule, he admits. But, he says, the companies don't have any responsibility to take care of the mercury. "It's part of the car at the end of its life. That's the responsibility of the people who dismantle it."

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