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 such as NRDC and MPP that the toxic metal would easily find its way back into the domestic food chain from the developing world. The DOE stockpile is more than eight times the amount exported in 2004 by all U.S. companies combined. Once used in weapons and other energy-related technologies, the mercury is now obsolete for DOE functions and no longer of any use to the government. Exported mercury also poses a substantial 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.”
Today, US Senator Barack Obama sent a letter to US Dept. of Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman requesting clarification on recent reports that DOE is considering the sale of its 1300+ tons of its surplus mercury currently stored at its Oak Ridge, TN facility. “Given that mercury is a trans-boundary pollutant that is deposited both locally and globally, any strategy to reduce mercury in the environment must also include reducing the volume of mercury traded and solid in the world market,” states the letter from Senator Obama. Senator Obama has expressed concerns about global mercury issues and has introduced the Mercury Market Minimization Act (S. 3627), which would ban the export of surplus mercury from the US, similar to the proposal to ban mercury exports described below by the European Commission. The EC recently hosted an international conference on managing international supply and demand of mercury (see online presentations), including a presentation from MPP director Michael Bender. Policy makers, industry representatives, non-governmental organizations and scientists participated in this event. The conference brought together experts and stakeholders from around the world to discuss, in an open dialogue, the way forward to reduce mercury supply and demand.
MPP and an number of other health and environmental groups concerned with mercury pollution and with health risks to people today provided comment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on its “Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC): Revisions to the WIC Packages- Proposed Rule.” While applauding USDA for its proposed rule to discontinue WIC offerings of “white” canned tuna, we strongly recommend that “light” canned tuna also be eliminated from the WIC program. Recent tests indicate that some light canned tuna has similarly high mercury levels—or higher levels—than “white” canned tuna and therefore, under the Institute of Medicine criteria, would indeed “pose a mercury hazard.”