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This article is being forwarded from another email list.
Dane County, WI
Michigan targets mercury Initiative aims to cut exposure to neurotoxin
Monday, February 23, 2004
By Jeff Kart
There's a movement against mercury in Michigan, spurred by frustration that
the federal government isn't doing enough to protect families from the
If the Michigan Mercury Initiative succeeds, the changes from the package of
bills would be far-reaching.
Some mercury-containing products used by farmers, hospitals and contractors
would be banned immediately and phased out over a number of years.
Manufacturers would be encouraged to find alternatives to using mercury in
electrical switches and other devices.
Some products would be labeled if they contain mercury, so households and
businesses could separate them from other trash and have the mercury
Mercury is an element that comes from natural and manmade sources. Some
people may remember it as the liquid metal once used in high school science
But mercury is harmful, and has been called the most prevalent pollutant in
the Great Lakes. It accumulates in tissue and has led to fish-eating
In humans, mercury attacks the body's central nervous system, damages or
destroys tissues in the brain and is particularly harmful to children's
development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1
in 12 women of childbearing age have unsafe mercury levels, resulting in
more than 400,000 babies born at risk in the U.S. each year.
Joe Plunkey, 61, of Oscoda, said the Michigan Mercury Initiative sounds good
Plunkey lives on Van Etten Lake near Oscoda and likes to fish. He said he's
concerned about fish advisories that generally say people should only eat
one fish a week from the Great Lakes, due to mercury levels.
"Mercury should be totally banned," Plunkey said.
"You lose enough brain power as it is as you age, you don't need any help."
Plunkey is a retired occupational and environmental health registered nurse
with General Motors in Swartz Creek.
"Have you ever heard the term, 'Mad as a hatter?' That's what it comes from,
the use of mercury," he said.
"They used to use mercury in the making of hats. People became mad as a
result of their exposure."
The Michigan initiative is part political compromise.
It doesn't target mercury emissions, the nation's largest source of mercury
pollution, that come from coal-fired power plants like the Consumers Energy
Co. Karn-Weadock complex in Hampton Township.
Environmentalists and others have charged that the Bush administration is
taking steps to relax emissions standards for coal-fired plants, which emit
a total of about 48 tons of mercury annually.
Rep. Jack Minore, D-Flint, one of a handful of Democratic lawmakers backing
the Michigan Mercury Initiative, said the idea is to take small steps and
raise public awareness about mercury.
Similar legislation, some targeting mercury emissions, is being introduced
in states around the country.
Minore said he doesn't think more stringent emission standards would fly in
Michigan. But getting the initiative passed could pave the way for future
emissions-reduction proposals here, he said.
"What we'll have now is a variety of things that we think will have the
support of all the affected industries," Minore said. "If we went further,
there would be opposition."
The plans aren't without controversy, however.
One problem is that they are still being written, so the final proposal
isn't in black and white. Minore said the bills being prepared right now
were drafted in cooperation with several business associations.
Minore said he expects about a dozen bills to be introduced next month, with
Democratic and Republican sponsors. Minore spearheaded legislation in 2002
that resulted in a ban on mercury thermometers in 2003, and thinks the
initiative will enjoy similar support.
But some associations, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,
still have questions about the proposal, as it's been outlined so far.
For instance, a press packet on the initiative says dental offices would be
required to immediately begin using sink traps to collect filling materials
that contain mercury.
The Michigan Dental Association doesn't support that, said Kris Nicholoff,
assistant executive director for the group. The association has a membership
of about 5,500 dentists, representing 80 percent of dentists in the state.
Nicholoff contends there is no mercury in fillings used by dentists. He said
fillings are made with mercury, but that mercury is turned into amalgam
before it's put into people's mouths.
The association encourages dentists to use traps to collect amalgam fillings
for recycling, but the state is targeting the wrong industry by proposing to
require the traps, Nicholoff said
"Amalgam fillings are safe and effective, and they last longer than any
other filling next to gold," he said. "If they want everyone to have gold
fillings, they're going to have to foot the bill."
DEQ officials dispute that, and say mercury in hundreds of fillings being
washed down the sink at dental offices across the state is a threat to the
Steven J. Kratzer, a DEQ mercury pollution prevention specialist in Lansing,
said amalgam is about 55 percent mercury, and dental offices are one of the
largest contributors of mercury to wastewater treatment plants.
"In quantity, they are a problem," he said. "The issue isn't the mercury
vaporizing in the patient's mouth as much as it is all this leftover product
being rinsed down the drain and entering the sewer system."
He said mercury vapors can be released from amalgam and enter the atmosphere
during the wastewater treatment process.
Rep. Joseph L. Rivet, D-Bangor Township, said he supports the initiative,
but thinks it might not pass unless it's pulled back a bit.
"Nobody's interested in selling out the environment," he said. "It's just a
question of trying to come up with the proper balance in moving forward."
Rivet said he'd support extending proposed phase-outs from five to 10 years,
for instance, because a shorter time frame could put a burden on businesses.
"Obviously, right now with the economy, there's going to be a hesitation to
do anything that will burn manufacturers initially," Rivet said.
Kratzer said current regulations on disposing of mercury-containing products
vary depending on how much is generated. For example, a homeowner can
legally toss out a mercury thermometer. But the mercury initiative would
likely ban that type of disposal, he said.
The point is to reduce the landfilling of mercury and remove the toxin from
commerce as much as possible.
Mercury that now is thrown away would instead be recycled, Kratzer said. The
state subsidizes 15 free recycling sites right now, including one in
Saginaw, where people can take mercury-containing products.
"With any luck, we'll expand that network so there's added need and
convenience," Kratzer said.
DEQ spokeswoman Pat Spitzley said her agency supports the initiative in
concept, but still wants to see the final details.
The proposal includes a requirement that manufacturers and wholesalers
notify the DEQ of any mercury-added products. Companies would have to stop
selling mercury-added products unless the DEQ grants an exemption.
But Spitzley said she suspects those requirements could get costly, and the
potential strain on resources has to be considered.
Spitzley said the DEQ for years has worked with the automotive industry and
other business groups to explore ways to reduce the use of mercury in their
Ron Clifton, manager of clinical engineering for Bay Regional Medical Center
in Bay City, said the proposal would have little or no impact on the
hospital. The initiative would prohibit the sale of blood-pressure recording
devices that contain mercury, and prohibit the use of the devices in a
number of years.
Clifton said Bay Med phased out blood pressure machines that used mercury
gauges years ago. He said the hospital still has some examination tools that
contain mercury, but the last of those will be replaced this month.
"We kind of saw this coming a long time ago," he said.
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