trails other states in policing of mercury John
C. Kuehner Ohio Plain Dealer
Take a bite out
of a sport fish caught in Ohio, and you likely will be
Lake Erie, the Ohio River and every body of water in between.
Yet Ohio has
not been as aggressive as some of its neighbors in tackling
the state's mercury problem, even though it has issued
yearly advisories since 1997 warning people to limit the
amount of fish they eat because of health risks, including
Minnesota started addressing the problem more than a decade
ago, but Ohio created the Mercury Reduction Task Force
only two years ago. Its goal: to reduce the use, release
and emission of mercury and find alternatives to mercury
have adopted a variety of laws, from banning mercury thermometers
and other devices to requiring labeling on products that
contain mercury. But Ohio legislators have not proposed
"It's not something
we have looked at," said Greg Paul, legislative aide to
State Sen. Robert F. Hagan, who is a member of the Energy,
Natural Resource and Environment Committee. "We recognize
[mercury] as a problem, but [as Democrats] we're drastically
power plants are by far the biggest source of mercury
pollution in the state.
But a typical
thermometer contains enough mercury to contaminate a 20-acre
lake, which would be twice the size of Cleveland's Public
mercury-filled thermometers, mercury-filled thermostats
and other common items around the home - which pose the
greatest immediate risk to individuals - states can educate
and raise awareness about the hazards posed by the toxic
The Ohio Department
of Health has issued an advisory the past five years that
children age 6 and younger and women of child-bearing
age should eat no more than one meal a week of fish -
any species - from an Ohio body of water because of mercury
contamination. Health effects can include birth defects
as well as mental and physical retardation in newborns,
according to the advisory.
has adopted legislation that bans mercury in schools,
Ohio is working with districts in a voluntary program
to make schools mercury-free. Ohio will issue an educational,
eight-minute videotape about mercury by the end of next
month for schools and communities to use.
"Why the Ohio
EPA hasn't done more, I don't know," said Jamie Harvie,
mercury coordinator for Health Care Without Harm, an international
coalition of environmental, health-care and public health
officials. "It's strange why, when we know it's bad, we
don't say, 'No more mercury in products.' It's almost
like we are trying to protect industry over our community."
Ohio focuses on
Protection Agency Director Chris Jones bristled at the
notion Ohio is behind other states.
on the big picture," he said through a spokeswoman. "The
major contributor to the mercury issue is air deposition,
and that is a major focus."
Ohio is developing
a voluntary program that asks car shredders to remove
mercury-containing switches from vehicles before they
are crushed and melted down for their steel, which releases
mercury vapor into the air.
New York and
Wisconsin already have this program in place, and Indiana,
Minnesota and Michigan are looking at something similar.
"We feel a strong
sense of connection to the Great Lakes," said Steve Kratzer,
mercury pollution specialist with the Department of Environmental
Quality in Michigan, considered one of the leaders in
mercury reduction. "We take the stewardship role very
Like other states,
Ohio is working with hospitals and dentists to get them
to reduce mercury use and mercury-containing products,
such as blood pressure detectors, fluorescent lights and
mercury batteries. Both programs started about three years
For the past
four years, Bowling Green State University has run a recycling
program it started after a mercury spill at the college.
It has collected more than 4,600 pounds of mercury, from
7-pound canisters of mercury used as weights in grandfather
clocks to games and more than 15,000 thermometers, said
Dave Heinlen, the university's safety and health coordinator
in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety.
"We could be
doing a lot more," he said. "Not only in Ohio, but the
rest of the nation. But Ohio is right up there. We're
addressing the issue."
State OK with
Ohio has not
drawn the wrath of the federal EPA, said Alexis Cain,
an environmental scientist with the U.S. EPA's regional
office in Chicago. It has not failed to meet any federal
guidelines or requirements on mercury.
"It's fair to
say that Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana are
more activist states on mercury," Cain said. "But I'm
not saying Ohio has a deficiency it needs to correct.
The other states have made mercury a priority for legislative
action and program development."
As an element,
mercury occurs naturally in rocks and soil. Touch its
refined, familiar form, a silvery-white liquid, and you
will not drop dead. It's not readily absorbed through
the skin, but you can get sick by breathing its odorless,
colorless vapors, which are released at room temperature.
If heated, mercury evaporates faster.
As an element,
mercury does not break down and cannot be destroyed. Instead
it transfers to other forms. In water, bacteria can turn
mercury into methylmercury, its most dangerous form. It
travels up the food chain and increases in concentration,
where it eventually lodges in larger fish, which are eaten
by humans and wildlife.
been mercury in the environment, and it's always been
in fish, but in much lower levels," said John Gilkenson,
with the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.
"But through our activities, we have pushed it to higher
that two-thirds of the mercury in circulation in the environment
are from coal burning and other human activities over
the past five centuries, Gilkenson said.
That's why there
is a push to get mercury off the streets.
has been known as a toxic pollutant since the late 1960s,
concerns increased in 1995 when the U.S. EPA established
water quality rules that the eight Great Lake states had
The rules focused
on toxic pollutants, but were much more stringent on pollutants
that accumulated in humans and fish, such as mercury.
The limits required
all the areas that drained into the Great Lakes - in Ohio,
the northern quarter - to meet federal standards designed
to protect wildlife. These new stricter limits were adopted
because humans and fish-eating wildlife, such as eagles,
gulls and mink, will be exposed to high levels of mercury
because of its accumulation in fish.
the rules in 1997.
That same year,
the federal EPA approved a new method to test for mercury
that was 1,000 times more sensitive than previously used.
"That made everyone
aware that mercury is a pollutant you find everywhere,"
said Keith Linn, an environmental specialist with the
Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
Now the sewer
district must meet stricter mercury limits on its treated
But that will
be hard to do.
The sewer district,
which serves 1 million people in Cuyahoga and northern
Summit counties, has calculated that if all commercial
and industrial sources of mercury in its service area
were eliminated, it would still receive enough mercury
from residential sources that it would not consistently
meet the new discharge limit. That mercury waste is from
dental fillings that get excreted by the body.
EPA orders, the sewer district is taking steps to reduce
mercury coming into the plant. It has ordered 1,100 dentists
in its service area to minimize the amount of mercury
they are sending down the drain. They have until Dec.
31 to file plans.
"It's not a terrible
hardship," said Beachwood dentist Tom Kelly. "It's something
we need to do."
Last month, the
regional sewer district and the Cuyahoga County waste
office held their first-ever mercury fever thermometer
exchange program and collected 1,500 thermometers. Such
events are becoming more common across the state.
The sewer district
bought 2,600 nonmercury thermometers for $5,330. But activists
point out that while taxpayers pay to remove thermometers,
they are still sold in Ohio.
mercury consumption in the United States has dropped by
90 percent since the late 1980s, the No. 1 source for
mercury in the environment remains coal-burning power
is pending to require mercury emission cuts in air pollution.
"If we had to
focus our energy, it should be on the huge sources of
mercury," said Rose Garr, a field organizer with the Ohio
Public Interest Research Group, an environmental research
and lobby group.
"I don't want
people to get sidetracked and think all they have to do
is turn in their thermometer. While it's a good program,
if you want to eliminate the mercury threat, the threat
is from coal-burning power plants."
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