Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#198 - Scientists Suspect Poisoning Of Fish By Mercury Emissions From Incinerators, 11-Sep-1990

Incineration of municipal solid waste (msw) is releasing massive
amounts of the potent neurotoxin, mercury, into the air, according to a
study published last week by scientists Robert Collins and Henry S.
Cole of Clean Water Action's Research and Technical Center in
Washington, DC. Garbage burners now operating in 40 states are
releasing an estimated total of 74,356 pounds of mercury into the air
each year, according to Collins and Cole; garbage burners on the
drawing boards would release an additional 52,339 pounds into the air
annually when they start operating, for a total of 126,695 pounds per
year. This makes garbage burning the second largest source of mercury
entering the atmosphere, after coal-burning power plants, which put an
estimated 162,000 pounds per year into the air.

Even at very low exposures, mercury can damage the human central
nervous system, impair mental development, and damage kidneys.

Mercury--the familiar "quicksilver" metal used in many thermometers--is
contained in many household products, including batteries, paints,
dyes, electric and electronic devices (silent light switches, for
example), fluorescent lights, plastics, pharmaceuticals, pesticides,
pastes, glues, adhesives and other items. When these items are
landfilled, their mercury escapes slowly into the soil and groundwater,
contaminating the local environment. However, burning any of these
items turns their mercury into a gaseous vapor which escapes from the
smoke stack and thus contaminates an area extending many miles from the
incinerator stack. As the airborne mercury cools off, it turns back
into a solid form and settles to earth where it begins to interact with
living organisms. Some of the mercury is held for a time in the soil,
but eventually it moves with rainwater toward the nearest stream,
river, or lake. Once in an aquatic environment, the mercury moves into
the food chain or food web, concentrating as it goes. It starts by
entering plankton--the smallest, floating plants--and ends up
contaminating the largest fish, which often become so toxic that they
are dangerous for humans to eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
has set one part per million (1 ppm) as the "action level" for mercury
in fish. Fish containing 1 ppm or more of mercury can be banned from
interstate commerce and people are warned against eating any of it.
Many states issue warnings not to eat fish containing more than 0.5
ppm.

At least 20 states currently have one or more bodies of water in which
excessive mercury has been identified and where warnings have been
issued to restrict or avoid fish consumption because of a human health
hazard from mercury contamination of the fish. Collins and Cole
surveyed states with fish advisories and found a suspicious pattern: of
the 16 states burning the largest amounts of garbage, 12 have fish
advisories for mercury. The sixteen biggest garbage burning states
[with their incinerator mercury emissions in pounds listed inside
parentheses, and an asterisk indicating those that have issued fish
advisories for mercury contamination] are: *Massachusetts (10,605);
*New York (9,698); *Florida (8,203); Ohio (6,132); Maryland (4,433);
*Connecticut (3,956); Michigan (3,831); *Virginia (3,449); Maine
(2,466); Indiana (1,771); *Tennessee (1,699); *Minnesota (1,694);
Pennsylvania (1,429); *Wisconsin (1,360); California (1,324); *Oklahoma
(1,139).

Fifteen to 20 years ago, industry (chemicals and allied products;
petroleum refining; copper and lead smelters; and instrument and
electronics manufacture) were much larger sources of mercury air
emissions than either incinerators or coal-burning power plants, with
total air emissions of 262,298 pounds in 1973. In the past two decades,
these industries have evidently reduced their mercury emissions
substantially (according to data industry reported to EPA in 1988 under
the federal Community Right to Know law) while power plant emissions
have increased 80% since 1980. However, the fastest-growing source of
mercury emissions in the past decade has been garbage burners, which
increased their mercury air emissions 122% between 1979 and 1989.

The air pollution control devices used on most U.S. garbage
incinerators (called electrostatic precipitators) do not capture
mercury at all; mercury slips right by them and out the stack. More
modern pollution control equipment for garbage burners combines dry
lime scrubbers (which spray crushed lime into the exhaust gas to
neutralize hydrochloric acid) followed by a fabric (baghouse) filter
(essentially a huge vacuum cleaner bag). EPA (U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency) has evaluated the ability of these modern systems to
control mercury emissions and has found inconsistent results. EPA's
proposed regulations of garbage burners contain the following
statement:

"Available data indicate wide variation in mercury collection
efficiency and emission rates, even for MWC [municipal waste
combustors] with GCP [good combustion practices] and SD/FF [spray dry
scrubber/fabric filter (baghouse)] controls. The reasons for this
variability and the mechanisms affecting mercury emissions and
collection are not well understood. Therefore, an emission limit cannot
be specified at this time."

In short, the designers, operators and regulators of garbage burners do
not understand the behavior of the machines they design, operate and
regulate, at least so far as mercury emissions are concerned. It is
interesting to recall that Dr. Barry Commoner recently reviewed the
history of dioxin emissions from garbage burners and showed that the
incinerator industry spent a decade denying that their machines create
dioxin in the combustion process. After a decade of keeping their heads
in the sand like ostriches, they had to admit that their original
understanding of their machines was simply wrong. Commoner concluded,
"Clearly, trash-burning incinerators have serious environmental
problems. But they reveal a failing that is even worse: the incinerator
industry has been building these devices without fully understanding
how they operate, at least with respect to their impact on the
environment." (Commoner, MAKING PEACE WITH THE PLANET [NY: Pantheon
Books, 1990], pg. 120.) In sum, both the mercury and the dioxin
situations indicate that the people who design, operate, and regulate
garbage burners have been conducting a massive experiment without fully
understanding the conditions of the experiment or its consequences,
exposing large segments of the American public to toxic effluents,
claiming all the while to know precisely what they are doing. It is a
stark lesson worth remembering the next time a "state of the art"
facility (of any kind) is proposed for your community. Lois Gibbs of
the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste has said, "State of the
art really just means industry's latest experiment." The recent history
of the garbage burning industry seems to confirm Ms. Gibbs's maxim.

Air pollution control devices that capture mercury exist; they are
simply not used in the U.S. because government has not required garbage
burners to use them. (It is worth noting that the National Resource
Recovery Association, which promotes incineration, is a subsidiary of
the U.S. Conference of Mayors, so the relationship of this industry to
government is cosier than most.) Recently, all 11 solid waste
incinerators in the Netherlands have been required to install activated
carbon filters on their smoke stacks, to capture mercury effectively.

Of course capturing mercury from the smoke stack simply puts it into
the ash, which must be landfilled somewhere. The mercury will then make
its way into the local environment around the landfill, sooner or
later. Ultimately, the only real solution to the problem of mercury
emissions from incinerators is to stop using incinerators for solid
waste management, or to stop manufacturers from putting toxic mercury
into household products, or both.

Get: Robert Collins and Henry S. Cole, MERCURY RISING: GOVERNMENT
IGNORES THE THREAT OF MERCURY FROM MUNICIPAL WASTE INCINERATORS
(Washington, DC: Clean Water Action Research and Technical Center [1320
18th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036; phone (202) 457-1286, ext. 128],
September, 1990. 44 pgs. $7.50 for citizen activists; $50.00 for for-
profit groups.

--Peter Montague

=====

Descriptor terms: msw; mercury; robert collins; hank cole; clean water
action; incineration; health effects; nervous system disorders; mental
illnesses; kidney disease; household hazardous waste; food; diet;
chemical industry; air pollution; air quality; water pollution; waste
treatment technologies; scrubbers; studies; barry commoner; msw; waste
disposal industry; ash; toxic waste;