Mercury Pollution Still a Threat, Says American Bird Conservancy

Citing concerns about four manufacturing plants in Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) – the nation’s leading bird conservation organization – has called on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to phase out the use of mercury in chlorine and caustic soda production through passage of the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act of 2009. 

In a letter, ABC urged the Committee to take up consideration of S. 1428, the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act of 2009, introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). 

“This is the proverbial no brainer. About 95 percent of these plants in the U.S. have switched to mercury-free technology.  It’s better for humans. It’s better for wildlife. It’s better for the environment.  And it also happens to be a more efficient technology,” said Moira McKernan, Pesticides and Birds Program Director for ABC. 

Mercury chlorine plants (also called chlor-alkali plants) are significant mercury polluters. They use mercury to convert salt to chlorine gas and caustic soda (lye) and in the process, emit or lose mercury into the environment. Mercury can also be transported in the air and deposited into aquatic environments, exposing fish and wildlife. In one form – methylmercury – it can biomagnify up the food chain. For example, through biomagnification, Bald Eagles have more mercury in them than the large fish they eat, and the large fish have more mercury in them than the small fish they eat, and so on. This puts fish-eating birds and mammals such as eagles, loons, mink and river otters at risk of very high exposure to mercury. Additionally, humans who consume fish with elevated mercury are also exposed. 

Methylmercury can adversely affect adult bird survival, reproductive success, and behavior and can also disturb the growth and development of a bird embryo or fetus.  Methylmercury crosses the blood-brain barrier, and can be passed from female parent birds to their eggs. Embryos of birds are much more sensitive to mercury toxicity than adult birds. The dietary concentrations of methylmercury that adversely affect avian reproduction are only one-fifth of those that are directly toxic to adults. Animals that are severely affected by methylmercury show neurological symptoms such as lethargy, weakness, paralysis of limbs, loss of coordination, tremors, and convulsions. 

In addition to effects on birds, mercury contamination also adversely affects fisheries and local economies. Mercury contamination has reduced the economic and nutritional values of fisheries such that in 2000, methylmercury accounted for more than 79% of all fish and wildlife consumption advisories in the United States.

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