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All about mercury (Download pdf)

The land of the free
The US has effectively managed to control mercury pollution in its backyard

The US is the world’s largest user of mercury, annually consuming 372 tonnes. However, through rigorous regulation of products and processes, it ensures that mercury does not get into its environment.

Mercury-containing products are regulated in several ways. At a federal level, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) have effectively eliminated mercury from various products. In recent years, a number of states have adopted notification and labeling requirements on the mercury content of particular products to keep consumers more informed. Sale of various mercury-containing products for which alternatives were deemed readily available, such as thermometers, dairy manometers, novelty items (toys, shoes), switches in automobiles, and thermostats have also been prohibited. Concentration limits have been set for batteries and packaging processes, mercury-containing products are segregated from the solid waste stream and ultimately recycled, and state-sponsored collection programmes for thermometers and dental inventories have effectively been put in place.

Wastewater point sources: Clean Water Act (CWA) regulations specify technology-based effluent limits for mercury discharges from different industries.

Air point sources: The CWA also regulates mercury in source categories using Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards.

Chlor-alkali industry: Emissions have been limited to a maximum of 2,300 grams/24 hours. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing a rule that would further limit mercury emissions from plants that produce chlorine using the mercury cell method.

Energy production: Regulations
have been promulgated for mercury MACT regulation in energy production by 2004.

Waste treatment and incineration
Municipal waste combustor plants: New source performance standards and emission guidelines have been made applicable to municipal waste combustors. The mercury air emissions standard for new and existing plants is 0.08 mg/day/m3 at 7 per cent oxygen.

Some chlor-alkali facilities in the US are shipping their waste to Canada or elsewhere for disposal Beware of the Trojan horse

Medical waste incinerators: The EPA finalised new source performance standards and emission guidelines for medical waste incinerators in 1997, limiting emissions from new incinerators. Several states, including New York, California and Texas, have adopted strict rules.

Hazardous waste incinerators: In 2002, the EPA promulgated interim emission standards for hazardous waste incinerators, hazardous waste burning cement kilns and hazardous waste burning lightweight aggregate kilns under the joint authority of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Sludge from industries: Limits have been set for sludge disposal.

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Disposal and Recycling
Waste disposal: RCRA regulations outline specific classification and disposal requirements for products and wastes that contain mercury. These regulations are applicable to facilities that generate mercury-containing waste. RCRA regulations also specify disposal requirements for individual waste. All mercury-bearing waste are subject to land disposal restrictions. Their mercury concentration must be below the regulatory concentration level before they are disposed. For some types of waste, the regulations require specific care, such as incineration or thermal treatment. In other cases, only a maximum mercury concentration is required, and any treatment method may be used. As a result of recently imposed land disposal restrictions on chlor-alkali wastes, some facilities are building their own mercury recovery facilities, whereas others are shipping their wastes to Canada or elsewhere for disposal.

Product waste disposal: The RCRA regulates product disposal and recycling options for mercury containing products. Hazardous discarded products are subject to storage, transportation, and permit requirements. Currently, thermostats and fluorescent lamps are included in a "Universal Waste Rule" that eases RCRA restrictions on hazardous waste management and enables states to set up special collection programmes. This Universal Waste Rule is designed to reduce the amount of hazardous waste in the municipal solid waste stream and encourage the recycling and proper disposal of some common hazardous wastes.

Universal waste comprises items commonly thrown into the trash by households and small businesses. In July 1999, the EPA added mercury-containing lamps to this waste rule, which already covered batteries, thermostats, and pesticides.


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