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Energy Department May Sell Surplus Mercury Stockpile

Published by MAC on 2006-11-17

Energy Department May Sell Surplus Mercury Stockpile


17th November 2006

The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE, is considering selling some 1,300 tons of surplus mercury on the international market, prompting urgent warnings from health organizations that the toxic metal would find its way back into the domestic food chain from the developing world.

Word of the potential sale has prompted a formal request to the agency by Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, to keep the mercury in storage and out of the environment. “Given that mercury is a trans-boundary pollutant that is deposited both locally and globally,” he wrote to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, “any strategy to reduce mercury in the environment must also include reducing the volume of mercury traded and sold in the world market.”

The senator was joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, and the Mercury Policy Project in warning that U.S. mercury exports will “boomerang” back to the United States.

The DOE stockpile is nearly five times the amount exported in 2004 by all U.S. companies combined. Once used in weapons and energy technologies, the mercury is now obsolete for DOE functions and no longer of any use to the government.

Mercury exports often go to poorly regulated industries in developing countries, which release it into the atmosphere.

Some of that air pollution wafts over the ocean and back to the United States, contaminating ocean and freshwater fish.

“There is no question that mercury from this sale would find its way up the food chain, onto our plates, and into our bodies,” said Dr. Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist and director of NRDC’s Environmental Health Program.

“Inviting less developed countries to a close out sale on surplus American poison is sheer lunacy given what we know about how easily mercury moves around the globe," she said.

Prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. Even in low doses, mercury may affect a child's development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span and causing learning disabilities.

In adults, it can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure, and cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and other problems. Growing evidence suggests exposure to mercury may lead to heart disease.

Mercury poses a direct health risk to workers around the world, said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project.

“As many as 15 million gold miners in more than 40 countries, for example, are at risk from high concentration mercury vapors and mercury intoxication, which can lead to severe nervous system poisoning,” he said. “The U.S. government has a moral obligation to restrict its exports to developing countries, as the European Union recently proposed to do by 2011."

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