Other Sources of Mercury Contamination: Chlor-Alkali Plants

In addition to coal-fired power plants and cement kilns, chlor-alkali plants also contribute greatly to mercury emissions.  These chemical plants manufacture products such as chlorine bleach, laundry detergent, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-containing vinyl products such as toys, shoes, purses, and shower curtains.  These plants use mercury to convert salt into chlorine gas and caustic soda (lye) which is then used to make detergent, plastics, and bleach products.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), chlorine is the more abundant chemical produced by this process, first being used to produce bleaching agents for the textile and paper industries, and later for cleaning and disinfecting household products.  Chlorine is also a major component of construction materials, solvents--such as degreasers, cleaning solutions, and paint thinner—and insecticides.  

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the majority of modern chlor-alkali plants have now switched to a mercury-free manufacturing process, but there still exist  seven plants in the United States that use the old technology.  Each of these chlorine manufacturing plants has approximately 200 tons of mercury on site at any given time.  Unknown quantities of the mercury are lost in the manufacturing process ending up in our air or local waterways, further contributing to the problem of mercury in fish.  The NRDC reported in 2006 that operators at four of these plants could only account for 29 of the 150 tons of mercury they used in manufacturing from 2000-2004.

What can the consumer to do?   Do not buy or use chlorine containing products such as bleach or anything made of PVC vinyl such as cheap handbags and shower curtains. The consumer should only buy chlorine-free paper products as well because paper production is the sixth leading source of mercury emissions in the United States.  An alternative action is to buy non-bleached paper products, coffee filters and stock paper whether for the office or at home.

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