What Trash Incinerators and Gold Mining Operations Have To Do With Mercury Contamination

Local trash incinerators that burn hazardous, medical and household waste account for the release of approximately 26,000 pounds of mercury every year in the United States.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the majority of mercury emissions released from these incinerators comes from the burning of common household items such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, thermostats, and automobile scrap.  In recent years, the medical industry implemented the use of mercury-free thermometers and blood pressure machines resulting in these devices accounting for very little mercury pollution anymore.

Another source of mercury pollution is the gold mining industry.  According to the EPA, 11.5 tons of mercury is released into the air every year from this polluting industry.  Historically, mercury has always been used to separate gold from the mined ore.  In America, nearly 80 percent of all gold is mined in Nevada where the ore itself contains mercury.  When the gold is heated to separate the two metals, mercury is released as a waste product.  However, there is a deeper problem lying in the mining process itself.  Mercury can seep out of long-abandoned gold mines through underground pools of mine tailings even though they have not been in use for years.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it is estimated that mine waters and sediments in long abandoned mines today account for the release of hundreds to thousands of pounds of mercury each year.  On a global perspective, the EPA estimates that 20 percent of the entire world’s gold production comes from the artisanal and small-scale production sector which ironically produces the largest amount of mercury pollution: 400 metric tons of airborne elemental mercury every year.

What can the individual consumer do about these facts?  Consumers can begin by recycling all of their compact fluorescent light bulbs, thermostats and automobile scraps at a local authorized drop off recycling station.  Recycling works and assures that these toxic items never enter the regular waste stream where they ultimately end up in our air, water, and fish.  Citizens can also support efforts to regulate their local trash incinerator(s) by lobbying local politicians to enact stricter mercury emission controls and monitoring of these facilities.  Instead of buying or wearing gold jewelry, consumers can opt for antique or estate jewelry.  By creating less economic demand for gold jewelry, there will simply be less production and therefore less mercury pollution.

Citizens of the earth are not helpless in the fight against global mercury pollution.  Once people are educated and made aware of the sources contributing to global mercury contamination, the average consumer can take action on a daily basis and make better choices to combat this important environmental issue of our present day.  Every little bit helps, one person at a time.  When millions of consumers take action by changing their habits, lifestyles, and minds, environmentally positive change is inevitable and will occur to benefit everyone in the long run.

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