President Bush signed a major environmental law Tuesday that bans U.S. exports of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin and pollutant. The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Use of elemental mercury, the shiny, silver-colored metal that is liquid at room temperature, has declined in the U.S. due to tight restrictions and environmental concerns. Over the years much of that old toxic stockpile used to make batteries, thermometers and medical products were sold overseas for use in mining and industrial processes. There, the heavy metal contaminated soil and groundwater supplies, gradually making its way into the ocean.
Some of that mercury eventually found its way back to the U.S. in the form of mercury-tainted fish that can endanger pregnant or nursing mothers, women of child-bearing age and young children.
Forest fires, a big threat in the Rocky Mountain west, also cause soil-based mercury to be emitted into the air where it fouls water sources and the atmosphere. McPhee and Narraguinnep reservoirs as well as other lakes in the state have been the focus of fish advisories by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that place limits on safe quantities for consumption of freshwater fish.
“Today we have won a momentous victory for public health that will save lives both here and abroad,” said Susan Keane, a scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Banning the export of mercury will substantially reduce mercury contamination in fish, prevent the contamination of our water, and shield our children from a dangerous chemical. Those involved overcame a difficult political climate to enact bipartisan legislation that will benefit millions of people around the globe. This is no small feat, and I commend them for their hard work.”
Some of the largest stockpiles of elemental mercury are in the possession of the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy. The new law charges the Dept. of Energy with building a storage facility to stockpile mercury not used for U.S. industry.
The ban on elemental mercury sales and exports takes place immediately.