The build-up of toxic mercury in our environment is exacerbated by human activities such as the burning of coal and disposal of mercury-containing products such as fluorescent light bulbs. Once released into the environment, mercury transforms into methylmercury, an organic compound that builds up in our soil, lakes, rivers, streams, and fish. Most people have measurable amounts of methylmercury in their tissues, reflecting the widespread use of this toxin.
Mercury causes damage to the nervous, digestive, respiratory, and immune systems. Prenatal exposure to mercury while inside the womb can impact a child’s memory, motor skills, and future ability to learn. According to the EPA, at least 300,000 newborns each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with in utero exposure to methylmercury.
Other health effects include:
- Impaired vision and hearing
- Emotional instability
How we’re exposed
Mercury is typically released into the atmosphere through coal and oil fired power plants, most of which are located in the Midwest. Wind carries mercury to other regions and falls into our waterways through precipitation. Human exposure comes primarily from consumption of fish and shellfish. Mercury is also used in lamps, which account for roughly 5% of worldwide mercury use and this usage is expected to dramatically increase as less efficient incandescent bulbs are phased out.
In 2005, Vermont passed legislation that restricts the sale of certain mercury-added products, prohibits the use of mercury in schools, includes specified requirements for reduced use in medical facilities, clarifies product labeling requirements for mercury-added products, and bans the discard of mercury-added products in landfills and municipal waste incinerators. Further legislation passed in 2006 that required the removal of mercury-added auto switches from end-of-life vehicles prior to crushing. Most recently in 2011, Vermont made it illegal to dispose of mercury-containing light bulbs in the trash. Now 71 participating local hardware stores are accepting spent fluorescent bulbs. While all pieces of legislation have helped build momentum for limiting mercury exposure in Vermont, more could be done to protect our citizens from risk of exposure, such as following California’s example by setting mercury content standards for lamps.