Actions the Consumer Can Take to Combat Mercury Contamination

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 1:12 PM

I fondly recall hand washing and drying dishes for my family of eight people when I was a child. As I watched the sudsy dirty waste water journey down the drain, I would think about where that water went. Where did that waste water end up? I had recently attended an outdoor center environmental class at my inner city school. An instructor there took me and my classmates outside the city limits, showing us--many for the first time--the wild streams and tributaries snaking through our local landscape on their way to the nearby river. I specifically recall the naturally occurring dirty “soap suds” building up on top of some of these local streams--especially at the bottom of a waterfall. I was convinced that this was where my dirty dish water ended up and that my actions directly contributed to this phenomenon. I felt a very deep remorse that my actions affected the local tributaries and streams in this way and probably poisoned the fish and other creatures living in these waterways. Of course, I later learned that there were water waste treatment plants between my house and our waterways but I still made the connection. The "treated” water still must be discharged into the local river. This was the exact moment in my life--age nine--that I first became aware of our environment and the likelihood that my actions had an impact on this. I saw the cycle of water and realized that all waste goes somewhere whether it be into the air, waterways, or landfills.

According to the Journal of Environmental Monitoring, two of the biggest sources of mercury pollution in our environment are airborne: coal-fired power plants and cement kilns. Nearly 50 percent of electricity generated in the United States comes from coal-fired power plants. Since mercury exists naturally in coal, this alone attributes to the 50 tons of mercury emissions annually in the U.S. alone! This airborne pollutant eventually settles onto our land and into our waterways contaminating our fish. According to the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, cement manufacturing kilns in the U.S. expel 23,000 pounds of mercury into the air annually from the coal and limestone sources they use to make concrete. Both are natural sources of the heavy metal mercury. Although there are fewer kilns nationwide than there are power plants, some of the kilns emit one and a half times more mercury than the most-polluting coal-fired power stations. Stricter mercury emission controls must be enforced by law to prevent further airborne mercury pollution.

The modern day consumer must realize how their own lifestyle impacts the environment. The consumer has the power to make better choices to greatly reduce the mercury problem. One person can make a huge difference when one assumes a new methodology of living in an environmentally conscious manner. The main problem is that most consumers are ignorant of the ramifications of their modern lifestyles. There are two specific ways in which consumers can take action. The first call to action is for every electricity consumer to call their local power company and find out exactly how their electricity is obtained through their local supplier. Consumers can inquire about buying green power as an alternative option to the electricity obtained from coal-fired plants. Most electric companies now offer green alternatives such as wind, solar or hydroelectric power. By demanding alternative green renewable energy sources, consumers can greatly affect and reverse the pollutive effects of mercury stemming from the burning of coal. The second call to action is to locate nearby cement kilns and lobby local officials to place political pressure on the kilns to clean up their mercury emissions. In my next post, I will highlight more examples of ways in which consumers can take action to combat the global mercury contamination problem which ultimately ends up in our fish on our dinner tables.

Information Sources About Green Energy and Mercury Pollution:

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