News Archive

Mercury Regulation Rollbacks and Industry Opposition

The Trump Administration has worked to rollback almost all industry regulations enacted during the Obama Administration to demonstrate how government should not have role in determining how and what a facility can emit. As the EPA organizes to debunk the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) that sets a limit the release of mercury, the industry sector has spoken up in opposition. Industry officials have stated that there is no need to rollback a regulation that industries have already worked to comply with and that could deregulation could lead to more harm than good. Read More.


Students relocated after Mercury testing on school grounds

Northport Middle School, in Long Island, NY, has taken action to relocate its students after findings of high levels of Mercury on school grounds. Parents staged a “sick out” rally last week to express concern for the safety of the students. The school will remain closed for the remainder of the year for continued testing and remediation. Read More.

Backyard Talk

American Health Still Protected Despite Ruling on Mercury Regulation

By Dylan Lenzen

In the wake of some truly momentous Supreme Court decisions regarding the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality, a small battle was lost for public health when the Supreme Court decided to reject the EPA’s regulation of hazardous air pollutants, including mercury. These regulations were enacted in 2012 under the Clean Air Act and have significant implications for coal-fired power plants. Following the June 29 ruling, industry groups and congressional opponents of the regulation claimed significant victory, freeing power plants from costly regulation. While it may appear as such on the surface, a careful reading of the decision implies that this will be but a small bump in the road for the EPA’s effort to protect Americans from the toxic effects of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants. The decision is also unlikely to have any effect on the more ambitious efforts to regulate other pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to be released later this year.

When the EPA made the initial decision to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants, it did not take into account the costs that would be imposed on industry. Like other regulations, the exact emission limits were not established until later on in the implementation and it was not until the establishment of these exact limits that the EPA considered the full costs of the regulation. This is essentially what the ruling was concerned with. Justice Scalia, representing the majority, deemed that it was unreasonable for the EPA to fail consider the costs before making the initial decision to regulate emissions as opposed to later on in the process. Luckily, for citizens concerned for their future health, the rejection will not eliminate the important regulations on hazardous emissions. Instead, implementation of the regulation is likely to continue while the standards are sent back to the D.C. Circuit Court where the EPA will be forced to reassess the costs and benefits of the program. Since the standards were enacted back in 2012, most power plants have actually already established compliance under the regulation.

Public health will likely not be threatened with the loss of important protections from hazardous air pollutants. The EPA determined that these Mercury Air Toxics standards would prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year. While the EPA did not assess the costs and benefits when proposing the standards, they were assessed later on and show that the overall benefits far outweigh the costs felt by industry. Because power plants would be forced to install methods to control mercury emissions that simultaneously reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants, these co-benefits could result in almost $90 billion per year in savings. This figure compares to the estimated costs of compliance of $9.6 billion. Because these benefits vastly outweigh costs, the regulations are likely to remain in place.

It is also important to note that this recent Supreme Court decision will have no impact on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that is expected to be finalized by the end of the summer. This plan will seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated, “making a connection between the Mercury Air Toxics standards and the Clean Power Plan is comparing apples to oranges,” and went on to say in reference to the Clean Power Plan, “last week’s ruling will not affect our efforts.”

Backyard Talk

The vinyl plastics industry: one of the biggest users of mercury in the world

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A vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plant in China that uses mercury. Photo credit: United Nations

Dioxins.  Vinyl chloride.  Phthalates.

There are an appalling number reasons why we consider vinyl to be the most toxic plastic on the planet.

One reason that many people don’t realize is that the vinyl chemical industry is one of the biggest users of mercury in the entire world, in fact the #2 user globally, and that use has been increasing in recent years – primarily in China, where many of our vinyl plastic products come from.

China is the world’s biggest user and emitter of mercury and within China, the single biggest users of mercury are the factories turning coal into PVC.

PVC, mercury and chlorine production

The United Nations estimates the chlorine industry has 100 plants in 44 countries across the globe that still use mercury to make chlorine.  The #1 use of that chlorine is to make vinyl plastic, like vinyl flooring, pipes and school supplies.

According to the US EPA, In the U.S., the chlor-alkali industry is currently the largest private-sector source of stored and in-use mercury, and therefore the largest private-sector source of potential new supplies as a result of future closures or conversions of mercury cell chlor-alkali equipment or plants.”

PVC, mercury and vinyl chloride monomer in China

In China and Russia, mercury is also used to make vinyl chloride monomer, the basic building block of PVC.  And this use of mercury is increasing at an appalling rate.

According to the United Nations, Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM) production using the mercury catalyst process is the second largest demand sector for mercury globally (estimated at 570-800 tonnes annually in 2008). The process has emerged as a cost effective production technique for countries with high availability of acetylene over ethylene as raw materials (namely in China and Russia). It is believed that China represents 80-90 % of global capacity with 89 facilities currently identified.  UNEP has collaborated with China on this important topic since 2008.”

Vinyl plastic industry’s use of mercury on the rise

In 2002, the Chinese PVC industry used 354 tons of mercury. Within two years, that had increased to 610 tons, growing at an annual rate of 31.4%.  It’s been estimated that mercury usage continued to increase to over 1,000 tons by 2010.

No one really knows precisely how much the industry is using today, or how much of that mercury may be getting into the air, oceans and fish we all eat.

Why should we care?

According to the United Nations:

“Mercury is recognized as a chemical of global concern due to its long-range transport in the atmosphere, its persistence in the environment, its ability to bioaccumulate in ecosystems and its significant negative effect on human health and the environment.

Mercury can produce a range of adverse human health effects, including permanent damage to the nervous system, in particular the developing nervous system.  Due to these effects, and also because mercury can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child, infants, children and women of child bearing age are considered vulnerable populations.”

The UN’s most recent assessment identifies the vinyl chlorine industry as one of the biggest sources of mercury on the planet.

If we want to eliminate global use and releases of mercury, one thing we can do is phase out the use of this hazardous plastic that is fundamentally reliable on this global pollutant.  That’s a global strategy we can get behind.