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Great Lakes Article:

Ohio trails other states in policing of mercury
John C. Kuehner
Ohio Plain Dealer
12/02/2002

Take a bite out of a sport fish caught in Ohio, and you likely will be eating mercury.

Mercury contaminates 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 birth defects.

Michigan and 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 products.

Other states 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 similar laws.

"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 outnumbered here."

Ohio's coal-burning 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 Square.

By eliminating 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 metal.

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.

While Michigan 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 'big picture'

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Chris Jones bristled at the notion Ohio is behind other states.

"We're focused 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 seriously."

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 ago.

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 U.S. EPA

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.

"There's always 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 levels."

Estimates are 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.

While mercury 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 to adopt.

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.

Heightened awareness

Ohio adopted 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 discharges.

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.

Under recent 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.

While overall 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 plants.

Federal legislation 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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