The EPA's Mercurial Madness

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

In the process of writing my piece about Lisa Jackson and the EPA, I got to reading about the EPA passing new mercury regulations. Their regulations are supposed to save the lives of some 11,000 people per year. So I figured I should learn something about mercury. It turned out to be quite surprising … here was my first surprise:

Figure 1. Natural and anthropogenic sources of atmospheric mercury emissions. About 7,500 tonnes of mercury are emitted into the atmosphere each year. Named countries show anthropogenic (human caused) emissions for that country.

My first surprise was that far and away the largest emitter of atmospheric mercury is the ocean. The ocean? I’d never have guessed that. Other huge emitters are various lightly vegetated land areas. In addition, forests, volcanoes, and geothermal vents are significant emitters … which is the reason for my new religious crusade:

So … what are the anthropogenic sources of mercury emissions, and how much of those are emitted from North America? Figure 2 shows those values:

Figure 2. North American emissions versus the rest of the world.

As you can see, North America is not doing well at all in the mercury emission sweepstakes. The rest of the world is busting our chops, easily out-emitting us in all categories. We’ve fallen way, way behind, the Chinese are kicking our emissionary fundament-als. Not only that, but the residence time for mercury in the atmosphere is about a year, so they get our mercury … but we also get theirs …

Now, the “stationary combustion” figures are what the EPA is targeting with their new restrictions. Those are mostly the coal-fired power plants. So let’s see how much of the global emissions are caused by US power plants:

Figure 3. US power plant mercury emissions, and emissions from all other sources.

As you can see, the US power plants emit less than 1% of the global mercury emissions. Even if the EPA could get rid of every US coal plant, it will not make a measurable difference in the atmospheric mercury.

Now, here comes the fun part. The new EPA regulations will not cut out all the mercury from US power plants. We’re already pretty efficient at removing mercury, and each additional reduction comes with more difficulty.

So let’s assume that the EPA regs will cut out 25 tonnes of mercury per year. This is supposed to save 11,000 lives every year. So that means if we could wave a magical wand and cut out all of the mercury, 100 percent of it, we should expect to save about 11,000 times 7500/25 = 11,000 times 300 = 3,300,000 lives saved every year … and if you believe that three million people die every year from mercury poisoning, you too could get a job with the EPA.

That’s the thing about facts. As Homer Simpson says,

Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!


All data from N. Pirrone et al., Global mercury emissions to the atmosphere from anthropogenic and natural sources, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 2010 

For further reading, see Willie Soon’s excellent analysis of the EPA “science” on which they have based their mercury findings.

[UPDATE] To better illustrate the total natural and anthropogenic mercury emissions, here is a different version of the same data shown in Figure 1.

Natural sources account for about 70% of the world’s total mercury emissions.


0 0 vote
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Owen in Ga
March 31, 2012 6:09 am

The EPA doesn’t need all that sciencey stuff…they have Gaia. Faith always trumps that hard thinking stuff.

March 31, 2012 6:12 am

Someone might think that ,really, the environment has nothing to do with these regulations.
It’s about power, money and power.

March 31, 2012 6:24 am

The regs cover…mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanides, not just mercury.
You cannot ‘assume’ 25 tonnes of mercury equates to 11,000 deaths prevented….I cannot find the amount the EPA expects the regs to remove from the environment, maybe you have some numbers………..

March 31, 2012 6:30 am

If you get a second, you should mention that compact fluorescent lights (CFL’s) contain about 4 milligrams (mg) of mercury. If we assume one broken bulb per household at 114,235,996 households in the US, that is 0.46 tonnes of mercury per year or 0.71% of the US total. If the EPA is successful in cutting emissions by 25 tonnes, this percentage increases to 1.2%. Hence CFL’s will then contribute as much of the US mercury as the US contributes to overall mercury. We should ban them.
Note that vaccines are something the UN wants to ban.
These guys:
(hope that cut and paste of the link worked!)

Bob W in NC
March 31, 2012 6:33 am

OK. So – I’m curious…the EPA wants to decrease mercury entering the environment, right? But, in the next year or so, we’ll all be having to use CFL bulbs, at about 5 mg mercury each.
Has anyone calculated how much mercury these will spill into the environment as they are thrown away? I know they are supposed to be recycled, but doubt seriously how effective that will be.
At 20 of these things per household, that’s 100 mg. Multiply that by the number of households in the US or North America, and how many tonnes are estimated?

March 31, 2012 6:42 am

Mercury is a genuine and serious pollutant. If EPA would confine itself to controlling genuine and serious pollutants like this, I wouldn’t have any problem with them.
It’s the other nonsense about carbon and biodiversity that makes them dangerous and requires the agency to be abolished. (After a bureaucracy tastes blood, there’s no way to take it back to sanity.)

March 31, 2012 6:43 am

Thank you Willis for a well presented article. Those of us who live in States in the USA already knew how little mercury is emitted. Hopefully, more will know and understand this now.

March 31, 2012 6:46 am

Silly, really that they’ll reduce power plant emissions but required to use them in our homes where, if broken, we’ll get a lung full of it. Praying for Obama to loose so that this extremist Jackson gets canned.

March 31, 2012 6:47 am

It’s pretty obvious that the current Administration is anti-military… but that doesn’t stop them from adopting military tactics. What I see them doing is employing a classical pincer movement whereby coal fired energy production is being attacked from multiple directions with CO2/global warming being the primary thrust (at least for now) and the other flank being attacked through their efforts concerning mercury pollution (for now). I’m sure that they have other things waiting in the wings…

March 31, 2012 6:55 am

Reblogged this on Climate Ponderings and commented:
Willis Eschenbach on Mercury poisoned EPA regs.

Raymond Kuntz
March 31, 2012 6:57 am

Also see:
Volcano ‘Pollution’ Solves Mercury Mystery @

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
March 31, 2012 7:04 am

If the moderators will allow it, I’ll recycle most of a comment I made last December when I also found out how shockingly low the US power plant emissions were.
Now compare that to this April 07, 2011 newspaper account of a growing Hg contamination issue:

Demand for CFL bulbs is growing as government mandates for energy-efficient lighting take effect, yet only about 2% of residential consumers and one-third of businesses recycle the new bulbs, according to the Assn. of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers.
As a result, U.S. landfills are releasing more than 4 tons of mercury annually into the atmosphere and storm water runoff, according to a study in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Assn.
A San Francisco hardware store owner is all too familiar with the bulb issue.
“They’re promoting them and giving them away, but there’s nowhere to drop them off,” said Tom Tognetti, co-owner of Fredricksen’s Hardware.

I continually find this issue obfuscated by claims that the energy savings lead to reduced demand on coal-fired electric plants yielding less Hg emissions at those plants. To wit:

CFL bulbs actually have fewer mercury concerns than incandescent lights, according to the California Energy Commission. Although the older bulbs contain no mercury, they’re often powered by coal-fired electricity plants, which release mercury as a pollutant. The result is about 40% less mercury emissions per bulb with CFLs, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures.

Some claims are even more extreme:

Generating power is the number one contributor of mercury in the environment. CFLs save up to 70% of lighting energy, which means that power plants can produce 70% less power, which means 70% less mercury in the atmosphere.

Strangely enough, this claim does not factor in the Hg emissions from any coal-fired energy sources for the energy used in manufacturing and recycling CFL’s, let alone the Hg emissions from obtaining the Hg and manufacturing process releases. The 70% can be figured by a Nov 2010 EPA document (fine print says it’s a “living document” subject to change):
Which makes an amazing claim:

Most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb as it is used. EPA estimates that the rest of the mercury within a CFL – about 11 percent – is released into air or water when it is sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulb is broken.

This allows them to significantly downgrade their estimate of Hg released. And they are also not mentioning the Hg emissions related to manufacturing, and recycling including recovering the Hg from the toxic glass, if possible. Since the EPA thinks 89% of the Hg will stay forever bound to the glass in a landfill, it must take a lot of energy to liberate the Hg when recycling. Looks like there may be even more Hg released by recycling than just chucking them into a landfill.
So the EPA wants to regulate out of existence the coal-fired power plants that release only a relatively tiny bit of worldwide Hg emissions. But they want us to use CFL’s while being less than precise about the Hg emissions involved. And if you’re really worried about those coal-fired power plant emissions, ask yourself this: Which gives you a more severe exposure to Hg, those plant emissions spread out across the map, or a single CFL broken in your house? With EPA recommendations of ventilating a room for several hours with outdoor air after breaking a CFL, the answer should be obvious.

March 31, 2012 7:05 am

They should really be renamed the EPR, the Environmental Protection Racket

March 31, 2012 7:06 am

These people made up their minds a long time ago that they do not like the use of cheap energy be it coal, oil, or nuclear. If they can’t use mercury as the excuse, they will invent a reason to ban cheap energy even if they have to demonize plant food to do it. Cheap energy means prosperity, prosperity means an expanding human population, and having to share this planet with an ever increasing hoard of human “infestation” is the last thing they want.

Nick in Vancouver
March 31, 2012 7:07 am

Clearly the EPA needs to ban China, oh wait we’ve “outsourced” all our manufacturing there what will we do? “only take what you need to survive” – Spaceballs the movie – ahead of its time in so many ways The inspiration for the whole environmental movement..

Nick in Vancouver
March 31, 2012 7:24 am

Some person in a previous thread remarked that a plastic shopping bag full of old CFLs inadvertantly “dropped” in your local legislative building contains enough mercury to trigger an evacuation of the building and a full HAZMAT response. Democracy at work.
Our newish Conservative government, here in Canada, has shelved the phase out of incandescants even though they have all been pulled from our local stores (????). Ive got a closet stuffed with em and as the old softee Charlton Heston remarked they’ll have to – gently and slowly – pry my incandescents from my cold dead hands. If you check out Charltons’ quote he aims it at Mr. Gore – wow that guy is into everything – but was referring to another environmental hazard.

March 31, 2012 7:31 am

Yep, another example of “because we can measure it we must use that to model the world into our vision of how it should be.” The usual dogma, from the usual demigods, selling another false theology. I’m not sure what is worst the false theologies of the present and past or these new ones.

March 31, 2012 7:37 am

Actually, I think mercury is a serious problem with modern civilization. Whether or not the measures intended to control it are or are not likely to be effective, mercury is a very bad molecule to be carrying around in your body. However, the problem isn’t elemental mercury — you could drink a cup full of liquid mercury and suffer very little in the way of side effects (and people used to do just this back when they were searching for medicines, read Stephenson’s “Quicksilver” in the Baroque Cycle) — it is mercury compounds, in particular (IIRC) methyl mercury and mercuric cyanide. Mercury vapor isn’t good for you, but it is unusual to build up a vapor concentration that is dangerous — it needs spilled mercury in a closed warm room sitting a long time with little circulation to get an equilibrium vapor pressure with potential toxicity — even releasing the mercury vapor in a fluorescent bulb only makes the air around it moderately toxic for a few minutes.
Methyl mercury is a very bad actor — produced by bacteria, toxic enough to kill you if a single drop gets on your skin, and the cyanic variants are just as bad. Mercury has a rather long half life in the body, concentrating in fatty tissue in things like the liver. It acts among other ways as an oxidant, damaging cellular DNA. The body doesn’t like heavy metals, and mercury probably beats out lead as being a heavy metal it doesn’t like. You can read about mercury objectively here:
One of the problems with mercury is that it does not remain uniformly diluted at harmless concentrations. Once aerosolized from e.g. the burning of coal, it falls as rain into waterways, is transformed by bacteria into methyl mercury and related organic forms, is eaten by the things that eat the bacteria and starts making its way up the food chain, concentrating as it goes. In particular, it concentrates in top of the food chain fish. As a fisherman, I totally appreciate that because nearly any large fish I fish for has measurable concentration of mercury in its flesh.
This too isn’t uniform. In Eastern NC they used to make paper. Paper mills used liquid mercury to electrolyze salt into chlorine to bleach the paper. One mill in particular went out of business — they just went bankrupt and the owners walked away, leaving the whole thing to moulder including the mercury pits. Forty years passed, and the mercury vats corroded through, and tons of mercury literally poured out onto the swampy ground. When this was finally discovered — we’re talking rural and stuck out on a back road where nobody ever went but occasional deer hunters — the ground near the plant was so saturated that mercury would ooze up out of the mud when investigators walked towards the buildings.
Mercury in contact with ground = active source of methyl mercury operating over years, with the methyl mercury leaching into groundwater and down into the nearby (IIRC) Neuse River and thence down to the NC sounds and the sea. Predators like catfish and bass taken near the plant were horribly toxic and probably did kill a lot of people (decades later) with cancer and various linked diseases and disorders — it doesn’t act quickly but it acts; elevated levels of mercury were evident in fish sampled all the way down to and out in the ocean. It took years and lots of state money to clean it up (because the original owners were all dead and the heirs didn’t even know they had a problem and had no money anyway).
Another place where the problem is evident is the Great Lakes. Visit Michigan’s DNR website and look over it’s recommendations on eating fish taken from the Great Lakes — no more than one meal of fish a month (and none for pregnant women) because the fish are so damn toxic with cumulated mercury and PCBs. Certain fish (e.g. catfish) they suggest not eating at all. Certain places (e.g. Saginaw Bay) those of us who sometimes fished there knew better than to keep fish — Saginaw is surrounded by industries and has a far higher concentration of mercury and PCBs than the average, even for the Great Lakes. They are trying to clean them up, but it takes decades of regulation and elimination of new sources to drop the concentrations to where things get better, and it will probably be 2100 before fish taken there are anything close to safe to eat in quantity.
Mercury will, given enough time, flush out even of the oceans — methyl mercury from the mercury we are ADDING to the ocean every year will enter the food chain and eventually make its way to the bottom to build up in the rain of silt that is eventually subducted and a few hundred million years from now reforged into rock. There are doubtless natural sources — leaching out of mercury ores (cinnabar) in rivers and the like — but we (humans) are by far the biggest source of mercury, and we do not distribute that mercury at all evenly and the biosphere concentrates that which we do produce. The mercury vapor given off by the ocean is probably harmless. The biologically active mercury in the oceans is definitely not harmless. The mercury we produce eventually becomes biologically active and increases the concentration of non-harmless mercury to actively dangerous levels, generally in specific spatial locations but also in particular species that appear particularly susceptible (e.g. swordfish) in the ocean.
Mercury, in addition to be a teratogen (causing birth defects), toxin (poisonous enough to kill you directly), carcinogen (as a DNA-damaging oxidative agent readily taken up and stored in tissue), has a pronounced CNS effect — it crosses the blood brain barrier and causes damage to nervous tissue. It is mad as a hatter to oppose reasonable efforts to reduce the levels of mercury in the environment, or try to claim that the mercury that is there is harmless and that we didn’t put a lot of it there right where it is most dangerous. Dissenters are invited to take their pregnant wives and visit sunny Michigan for a Saginaw Fish Fry.
Well, no, I suppose I’m kidding — it really isn’t funny, and I wouldn’t wish birth defects on anyone for the sin of disagreeing or being wrong about something, but there really is a rather large amount of science and experience behind this and sometimes even the overdemonized EPA gets things right. Indeed, overall I rather think it is a good thing, because we made a bloody mess out of our waterways and air quality before it came along, and a lot of what it does anyone with common sense would want done. Don’t throw the many babies it provides out with the bathwater of misdirected efforts treating CO_2 as a “pollutant”.
Mercury is many things, but one thing it isn’t is equivalent to CO_2 in toxicity or long term capacity to cause harm.

March 31, 2012 7:40 am

Maybe the plan is to save us from the light bulbs…
….by cutting off the power

March 31, 2012 7:46 am

Nick in Vancouver says:
March 31, 2012 at 7:07 am
Clearly the EPA needs to ban China, oh wait we’ve “outsourced” all our manufacturing there what will we do?
No worries, Nick. I agree a top EPA priority should be a total ban of China. As to our outsourced manufacturing there, I say it goes the same way as the 40% of our electrical generation President Zero is on the way to bankrupting. When the sh*t really hits the fan, we can all riot our fannies off — that’s if disease and starvation hasn’t already taken us out.

March 31, 2012 7:47 am

Willis, several points.
First, mercury doesn’t cause cardiovascular issues, and EPA doesn’t (yet) claim it does. A very good study of this issue is Darius \h Mozaffarian et al. (2011), “Mercury Exposure and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Two U.S. Cohorts,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2011. Authors are from Harvard School of Public Health and various Boston hospitals. Conclusion section says:
“We found no evidence of any clinically relevant adverse effects of mercury exposure on coronary heart disease, stroke, or total cardiovascular disease in U.S. adults at the exposure levels seen in this study. (Funded by the National Institutes of Health.)”
Secondly, the sole adverse health effect that EPA claims to have found that they can quantify, and uses to regulate mercury, is reduction of IQ in the fetus of mothers who eat fish.
This effect, by their own admission, is so tiny as to be unmeasurable. EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) is the required examination of costs and benefits of the rule. EPA’s RIA (March, 2011) says that a 90% reduction in mercury emissions from US power plants, and the subsequent reduction in the mercury that mothers ingest when they eat fish whose mercury level has declined, is a total of 511 IQ points across the entire country. See Table 1-2 on page 1-4.
On pg. 5-2, this is what they say about the valuation of a gain of 2/1000 of an IQ point per affected child:
“The average effect on individual avoided IQ loss in 2016 is 0.00209 IQ points, with total nationwide benefits estimated between $0.5 and $6.1 million.” The benefits are from aggregate estimated increases in lifetime earnings due to 511 more IQ points spread among 240,000 allegedly affected children.
The link to the RIA is here:
The third point will go to how EPA comes up with “benefits” of possibly over $100 B for a rule whose only direct benefit from mercury reduction could not be found in any child, should it exist (the 2/1000 improvement in IQ points. I will have to send it later, as I need to go someplace right now. I needed to say SOMETHING before I left!

March 31, 2012 7:50 am

@ Bob W in NC :& kadaka (KD Knoebel)
I may be too cynical, but the circumstances are just too coincidental for me to ignore.
We essentially outlawed incandescent bulbs. We did this to save energy. Ok, I was against that but I understand the thought…. sort of. But, we also essentially established the CFL’s as the default bulb to replace them with. But, we did this knowing full well LEDs were right on the heels of CFL’s as being marketable with even better energy savings. We rushed the legislation to kill U.S. production and to endorse CFLs. The CFLs are simply an issue the lunatics can put in their back pocket.
Without a doubt, in a few years, there’s going to be an upwelling, a crying and gnashing of teeth because ground levels of mercury will be seen as increasing. And it will be an emergency and we’ll be prodded to do something extreme, and it will harm a successful industry in the U.S.
If WUWT is still around, we’ll show them these wonderful charts and graphs and data provided by Willis and others. And, they’ll ignore this and continue to show the rise in ground level mercury. And then we’ll lose another industry and likely a liberty or two. Next, they’ll come up with some other great idea using lead or some such for a product we don’t need but will adopt. Rinse and repeat as necessary until all forms of capitalism and liberties(yes, that’s redundant) are extinguished from this great land.
Prolly the next great scare…. after water scarcity, will be the radioactive particles of the REE found in our e-waste or some such madness.

Pamela Gray
March 31, 2012 7:56 am

Mercury poisoning is serious and your pie chart is misleading by making it look like a tiny anthropogenic problem. It is not. In addition global large scale efforts to reduce emissions may not affect a local source. Mercury levels are a serious LOCAL issue, tend to concentrate near population centers, and it does not take much for levels to be dangerous. Control needs to therefore be a local issue. This kind of EPA work does not make CNN headlines and apparently does not gain Miss Pinenuts’ attention.
When mercury is found it means down and dirty work, hard work. Local sources are not easily identified. And sometimes the source is not the industry near a river. For example, fish fat is the usual place to find dangerous mercury levels. But fish come and go. Where they picked up mercury is an investigative quandary. I wonder if Miss Pinenuts understands this. I seriously doubt she has any knowledge about this issue when well she should.

John F. Hultquist
March 31, 2012 8:03 am

The WSJ has an article by Liam Denning that says this rule applies to “new” plants. Further, he writes “Except the market got there first. Regardless of the EPA proposal, it makes no sense to build a new coal-fired plant anyway.
Then there are numbers ($ & %). The last two paragraphs are interesting. Lots of gas. Price goes down. Price of coal goes down. Gas price already low – can it go lower? All this makes the “futures” prices hard to settle on and thus, planning for new construction of electrical generation difficult.

March 31, 2012 8:06 am

Robert Brown says:
March 31, 2012 at 7:37 am
What you say is true, however it doesn’t bear on Willis’ point which is that the EPA is out in left field with the regulations on the power plants.
The fact that there hasn’t been a dramatic effort by the EPA to clean up known areas of contamination (with the exception of a few “Super-sites”) is one more negative point for our “Environmental Protection Agency.” They can get money to travel to talk about it, but don’t put any money in really doing it. Remediation occurs when they can point to a “guilty party,” provided that party is a private company. Federal Government Agencies, State Governments, and Municipalities get a pass – read up on the TVA, Illinois, and Huntington Beach, CA for more info. So much for protecting the environment.

Christian Bultmann
March 31, 2012 8:11 am

A few years ago Robert F. Kennedy Jr was here in Alberta having a fundraiser where he claimed that Alberta’s fish are too contaminated to eat with Mercury. Eluding that the Mercury contamination of the fish was caused by human activities.
The Alberta government concludes that most of the Mercury in fish likely comes from natural sources.
Greenpeace and other environmental advocacy groups funded by Kennedy insist that Mercury also enter the environment by human activities like pulp and paper processing and the oil production.
Interesting that there is no mention of the twisty lightbulbs as a source of Mercury contamination of the environment as if they would be all properly disposed off.

March 31, 2012 8:14 am

Robert Brown says:
” March 31, 2012 at 7:37 am
Actually, I think mercury is a serious problem with modern civilization.”
Robert, mercury poisoning is no longer a serious problem here in the US. Link me to an article that shows how many deaths of people under the age of 30 there were last year. This should be extremely easy as the EPA implies that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Americans dieing every year due to mercury poisoning. As other commentors have already clearly shown, the new EPA regs will have no effect on reducing Americans already very low Hg exposure as you are only reducing average Hg exposure by at most 1/4 of 1%. It is all pain for no gain. A cost benefit analysis should be done, which is something the EPA does NOT do. Clearly the cost far outweighs the benefits of these new regs.

March 31, 2012 8:21 am

How would the numbers work out if you substituted bullshit for mercury?

March 31, 2012 8:23 am

BTW, the environment also produces dioxins; as much as industry, for the US. Forest fires.

March 31, 2012 8:24 am

As a child I used to love to play with the mercury in my fathers mercury jar. It was about 5 pounds (in weight) worth. I would spill it out on the floor and eventually push the little blobs all back together with my bare hands, somehow I think this concern about mercury is a bit overblown. I turn 65 in a few months if my mercury exposure doesn’t kill me first.

March 31, 2012 8:40 am

Curiousgeorge says:
March 31, 2012 at 8:21 am
How would the numbers work out if you substituted bullshit for mercury?
I am not sure your comment passes the sniff test…..:)

March 31, 2012 8:47 am

My limited understanding is that Mercury was chosen as the target pollutant because it is difficult to remove from a gas stream due to its high vapor pressure (the reason the ocean is the main global source). Other pollutants such as Arsenic can be more easily removed in scrubbers so were not chosen as the culprit. Where they cam up with the number of lives saved is a mystery.
Obama’s goal was to drive up the cost of power, but that is not a likely outcome of this EPA action. The price of power won’t be impacted since natural gas is so cheap and abundant now. The overall effect of this ban on new coal fired plants will likely have no impact on anything except the coal companies and even that will likely be temporary. China will buy up the coal we would have burned here and burn it in their plants, which likely will be less efficient at removing pollutants. Since this is only a ban on new plants (which paradoxically are much cleaner burning than the old ones that will remain), the mercury reduction will happen very gradually.
In the end, only the EPA power grab will have succeeded. Watch for the EPA to find some reason to stop the burning of natural gas in power plants, or tax the hell out of it (perhaps on some pretext of reducing fracking to save the water supply). If that happens, Obama’s goal of doubling the cost of power so that his green energy scheme can be justified will have succeeded.

Bernie McCune
March 31, 2012 9:10 am

Our risk adverse society continues to drive us toward idiotic solutions. I DO STRONGLY AGREE that most types of radiation and non elemental mercury (Mike’s probably fairly safe) are very dangerous at “toxic” levels. The difficulty is to discern what exactly those levels might be. I don’t believe the EPA or most of the other regulatory agencies have really gotten that figured out yet. It also well known that certain levels of radiation and mercury have therapeutic effects below these “toxic” levels. It is known as hormesis – to a degree “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Or in the case of low doses of mercury – “what kills other stuff that might kill us is good”. In the end none of us gets out of this alive.

Vince Causey
March 31, 2012 9:12 am

Any biologist can tell you there are two kinds of bacteria – the good kind and the bad kind. There is absolutely no doubt that there is bad Mercury – that which comes out of chimneys – and good Mercury, which comes out of the sea.
Is that so difficult to understand?

March 31, 2012 9:28 am

Virtually every poison has a low dose range where its effects are healthful. This is called the “hormesis effect,” or the “hormetic range.” The minuscule doses that people are getting from environmental mercury are well down in this range, meaning that minor increments to environmental mercury improve health, so that reducing it will cost lives, not save them.
To claim that current levels of mercury present a danger, the EPA first analyzes a very tiny population (perhaps non existent) that gets enough exposure to environmental mercury to present a known health risk. Since virtually all mercury exposure comes from eating fish, and since only domestic freshwater fish would be significantly affected by changes in power plant mercury emissions, they focus on native American tribesmen who subsist almost entirely on wild caught fish.
A tiny fraction of this already hypothetical population might die from mercury poisoning. That gives the EPA a starting point. Then they do what Art Robinson calls “linear extrapolation to zero,” meaning that they add up the total amount of mercury exposure and count how many lethal doses they can divide it into, and that’s how many people they assume will die!
The virtual universality of the hormesis effect proves that this is not what will actually happen. In particular, mercury is well known to follow the typical hormetic dose-response curve, where very low doses stimulate improved health. Mercury has been studied to death because of the Thimerosol scare where mercury is a component in preservatives for vaccines.
People looking for a culprit for rapidly rising autism diagnoses pointed the finger at childhood inoculations and Thimerosol, but the very small doses involved are not dangerous and to the extent that they have any effect are actually healthful. In particular, thimerosol has been found to actually reduce the risk of autism in children who are inoculated with it. For documentation, click on Edward Calabrese’s reply to this abstract:
Calabrese is the modern pioneer in documenting the virtual universality of the hormetic dose-response. See for instance:

Brian H
March 31, 2012 9:29 am

Hamlet’s father was killed by having mercury poured in his ear. Ban it!!

March 31, 2012 9:46 am

Robert, mercury poisoning is no longer a serious problem here in the US. Link me to an article that shows how many deaths of people under the age of 30 there were last year. This should be extremely easy as the EPA implies that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Americans dieing every year due to mercury poisoning. As other commentors have already clearly shown, the new EPA regs will have no effect on reducing Americans already very low Hg exposure as you are only reducing average Hg exposure by at most 1/4 of 1%. It is all pain for no gain. A cost benefit analysis should be done, which is something the EPA does NOT do. Clearly the cost far outweighs the benefits of these new regs.
I totally agree that a cost-benefit analysis is called for, but as Pamela (?) pointed out, mercury is less of a global problem and more of a local problem. It is also a chronic problem — it doesn’t spectacularly kill people, but people who live in regions with lots of mercury tend to get all sorts of things at higher rates than the general populace. Of course toxic environments are often toxic in lots of ways, and linking it to just mercury is difficult. If you get cancer because of oxidative damage to your DNA, it isn’t really possible after the fact to attribute that damage to its true cause — radiation, mercury, lead, iron (yes, iron is toxic to the human body as well as being essential — I’m a hemachromatosis carrier and know that only too well), halogenated hydrocarbons, or just plain bad luck with nothing but oxygen, a molecule that is simultaneously essential for life and yeah, an oxidant at the cellular level that can damage DNA.
The point I’m making is that Willis’ presentation of the issue isn’t entirely fair — it is easy to point to many places and circumstances where mercury is a serious, anthropogenic, environmental hazard and where at the very least animal studies suggest that it contributes to the overall mortality and morbidity at some rate. So it isn’t silly to want to do something about mercury, and scrubbing mercury from coal is by no means a crazy place to begin, but as you point out in the end it is all about cost-benefit analysis, something that the EPA does not do and neither does anybody else in government, ever, as far as I can tell, in either party. CBA is anathema to politics, which is always about doing the right thing (going for some benefit) damn the cost or opposing the cost damn the benefit. I could wax poetic about gay marriage, the US as a “Christian” country, wars in Iraq, health care, controlling CO_2, and many, many other places where our civilization appear incapable of actually analyzing the total costs and comparing them to the reasonably expected benefits for various alternative decision pathways and using common sense to choose among them.
The problem with a CBA is that it is difficult to do a good one shooting from the hip. One actually has to do a rather large amount of research. Objectivity more or less demands that you not make up your mind about the way it is going to come out (to advance some position that you hold) ahead of time, as well. The EPA’s failure, in other words, should not become our own if we doubt its assertions.

March 31, 2012 9:51 am

I asked a coworker who is dealing with these new regulations what the preindusrtial levels were. Things like how much was in the soil or the ever popular fish consumption issue. Her response was noone knows.
So my next question was how does one regulate a contaminant if you do now the base line data. She just smiled.
If the EPA was required to document and justify their work with the same level of due dilegence they require of private industry, they would save money, and due more to help the environment.
But don’t let my boss see this we make lots of money on these regulations.

March 31, 2012 10:14 am

Doing a true CBR on the MACT act would require years. And this is actually what should be done……taking the years.
One would have to include the effect on genergal health of those who live in the northern lats as to sickness rates from prolonged exposure to lower temps in large buildings etc.
The very small amount of Hg emitted from coal at present does not appear to add a substantial amount of Hg to the atomphere/environment in comparison to all sources.
The ability of people to buy fruits and vegetables with the money not spent on higher prices as a result of higher elec rates would also have to be factored in.
So many actual questions/answers needed to make an intelligent decission, which the EPA seems not capable of anymore.

Dr. Dave
March 31, 2012 10:17 am

SPPI has a wealth of very good information about environmental mercury. I’ll like to just three articles while I look for the more comprehensive piece I read some time ago. There is a lot of irrefutable fact and some rather specious conjecture in the preceding comments. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to eat walleye, trout or salmon from Lake Michigan. A tremendous amount of commercial fishing occurs in Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. That fish likely contains less mercury per kg than open ocean top predator fish like tuna or swordfish. Lake Erie is the body of water to avoid. Many of you will find this articles interesting:

March 31, 2012 10:27 am

polistra says on March 31, 2012 at 6:42 am
(After a bureaucracy tastes blood, there’s no way to take it back to sanity.)

I’m going to have to use that on a placard, polistra; thanks.

March 31, 2012 10:38 am

There is a problem with zero tolerance strategies whether with mercury, radiation, or traces of marijuana in a teenager’s backpack that got him suspended from school and possibly killed.
There are several problems that zero tolerance raises, one is: measurement; i.e. increasing ability to measure and whether there is an impact at such concentrations. Zero tolerance is derived from extrapolation of much much higher concentrations where impact can be measured.
Another problem with zero tolerance is that organism adaptation is under-appreciated. Surprising, many organisms have mechanisms to handle heavy metals, we humans are one of them. So the issue is dose; back to the “how much” story again. Surprising also, we produce cancer cells every day, quirks of damaged or mis-shapened DNA, these cells are identified and destroyed. I am not saying a little radiation is good for you, but you do get a little radiation every day whether you are out in the sun or not. We also have DNA repair systems that repair DNA that get damaged in the normal wear and tear of the cell’s work.
I do not want to imply any disrespect to Robert Brown and his excellent review of impacts of mercury and methyl-mercury. I wish to focus a bit on the fishy part. Mercury and methyl-mercury should be having its devastating biological impact on the fish before they are caught by angling enthusiasts. There is very little literature that I am aware, that has identified impacts upon the various fish (fodder fish to Coho Salmon) at levels found in the Tittabawassee River including mercury, PCPs, dioxins.
That these compounds are in the top of the food chain creatures is certain. That I would follow the guidelines of the Michigan DNR or health advisories to pregnant women and a host of other precautionary principles is also certain.
What I object to is the 11,000 number which I believe was derived from the zero-tolerance extrapolations. And here again is a scare tactic to enact a series of regulations which have a tenuous science background. Another black eye for science and the uncertainty monster.

P. Solar
March 31, 2012 11:16 am

Good article Willis,
one thing you don’t say is how much less Hg Europe is now emitting due to all the coal we are no longer burning since they took a frigging light bulbs away. (And how much more we are putting into the environment because of being forced to use CFLs.)
Maybe the mad hatters at EPA have not finished working out the death toll for that one yet.

Billy Liar
March 31, 2012 11:17 am

Can anyone explain why the fish-eating Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world? Do their fish only contain good mercury?

March 31, 2012 11:24 am

Who’s the CBA candidate?
I suspect that if each department of the federal government was subjected to independent cost-benefit analysis on its operations, the results would be shocking. So much that there would be a chorus to shutter them, or at least subject them to something like that Monty Python skit with the Black Knight.

Logan in AZ
March 31, 2012 11:36 am

Alec Rawls says:
March 31, 2012 at 9:28 am
The classical student of hormesis is T. D. Luckey, who concentrated on low doses of radiation. I read his monograph years ago. A twenty page overview by Luckey is available at —
Luckey estimates that about 700 premature deaths per day could be prevented by a low-dose radiation supplement. Even more remarkable is the ‘accidental experiment’ in Taiwan, in which Cobalt 60 contamination of rebars used in an apartment house produced a 96% reduction in cancer — there is a five page paper published in 2004 that explains the details —
The incident was well investigated. As usual, the conclusion is that bureaucrats ignore any evidence that does not support total control by regulators, even if extensive morbidity and mortality result. The LNT theory is an analog to AGW politics in that sense. The goal is control.

Neil Jones
March 31, 2012 11:59 am

Doesn’t that regulate energy saving light bulbs out of the home?

Gail Combs
March 31, 2012 12:13 pm

Dang it Willis you beat me to it!
I was just working on a possible submission about the idiocy of the new EPA regs. My points were:
1. The EPA has just come out with a final ruling that includes stricter pollution controls and includes CO2 as a pollutant.
The title of the final ruling is
National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutant Emissions From Coal-and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units and Standards of Performance for Fossil-Fuel-Fired Electric Utility, Industrial-Commercial-Institutional, and Small Industrial-Commercial-Institutional Steam Generating Units: FINAL RULING
2. The EPA is directed by Executive Order (EO) 13563, “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,” to estimate the costs and benefits of the final rule.
3. President’s Executive Order 13563 states in part:
“Our regulatory system must protect public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation. It must be based on the best available science. It must promote predictability and reduce uncertainty….least burdensome tools for achieving regulatory ends. It must take into account benefits and costs, both quantitative and qualitative.”
4. Richard J. Trzupek said of the new rule, “With around 50,000 megawatts of coal-fired power set to be forcibly retired in the next few years—thanks to the draconian policies of Obama’s EPA—this rule ensures that no new modern, efficient coal fired power plants will be built to fill the gap.”
5. So what is the benefit that the EPA sees as out weighing the cost of destroying 50% of the US electrical generation over the next few years?

The benefits of this rule outweigh costs by between 3 to 1 or 9 to 1 depending on the benefit estimate and discount rate used. The co-benefits are substantially attributable to the 4,200 to 11,000 fewer PM2.5-related premature mortalities estimated to occur as a result of this rule. The EPA could not monetize some costs and important benefits, such as some Hg benefits and those for the HAP reduced by this final rule other than Hg. Upon considering these limitations and uncertainties, it remains clear that the benefits of this rule, referred to in short as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), are substantial and far outweigh the costs….
In section 5.6 of the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) we also report the monetized CO2 co-benefits using discount rates of 5 percent, 2.5 percent, and 3 percent (95th percentile).
Total social costs are approximated by the compliance costs for both coal- and oil-fired units. This includes monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting costs….

So the benefits are calculated from reducing mercury (Hg) among other pollutants
The method used to determine the effects of pollution on cancer rates was rather bogus. The EPA looked at cancer in cities vs cancer in rural areas and attributed the difference to pollution. See EPA Fact Sheet
6. So what do the studies on lung cancer tell us?

Environmental Health Perspectives © 1978 The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
The substantial reduction in air pollution, and particularly in components such as benzo[a]pyrene in urban areas of the United Kingdom during the past few decades has presented an opportunity to consider further the possible role of carcinogens in the air in relation to lung cancer. While the overall trends in lung cancer mortality have undoubtedly been dominated by changes in smoking, the marked contrasts that at one time existed between these death rates in urban and rural areas have gradually diminished. This may indicate that air pollution contributed appreciably to the urban/rural differences in lung cancer at one time, but it is still difficult to disentangle any effects it may have had from those of changing smoking habits.

Diet is the other confounding factor besides smoking.

It has been estimated that 30–40 percent of all cancers can be prevented by lifestyle and dietary measures alone. Obesity, nutrient sparse foods such as concentrated sugars and refined flour products that contribute to impaired glucose metabolism (which leads to diabetes), low fiber intake, consumption of red meat, and imbalance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats all contribute to excess cancer risk. Intake of flax seed, especially its lignan fraction, and abundant portions of fruits and vegetables will lower cancer risk. Allium and cruciferous vegetables are especially beneficial, with broccoli sprouts being the densest source of sulforophane. Protective elements in a cancer prevention diet include selenium, folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, chlorophyll, and antioxidants such as the carotenoids (α-carotene, β-carotene, lycopene, lutein, cryptoxanthin). Ascorbic acid has limited benefits orally, but could be very beneficial intravenously. Supplementary use of oral digestive enzymes and probiotics also has merit as anticancer dietary measures. When a diet is compiled according to the guidelines here it is likely that there would be at least a 60–70 percent decrease in breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers, and even a 40–50 percent decrease in lung cancer, along with similar reductions in cancers at other sites. Such a diet would be conducive to preventing cancer and would favor recovery from cancer as well.

7. What are the negative “Social Costs”?
The soaring energy costs were certainly not included in the calculation of co-benefits from reductions in mortality Unless of course the EPA considers death of the elderly a “Cost Benefit” and given government health care and Social Security it probably is at least secretly.
We can look at the UK and France to figure that out based on actual numbers within the last decade.

Official figures show the number of deaths linked to cold over the four-month period reached 25,400 in England and Wales, plus 2,760 in Scotland….

The population of England, Scotland and Wales ~ 59,800,000 so the death toll from too expensive heat was 0.047% of the population in just a four month period.

…heat-wave… death toll estimates in France soared from 2,000 on Aug. 14 to as high as 13,400 last week … 40C (104F)

France has a population of 65,300,000 so the death toll from too expensive A/C for just a couple weeks was 0.02% of the population.
So the combined total of deaths for those two years is 0.06% of the population due to lack of money for heat or A/C.
Looks like we can point to very concrete results from increases in the cost of electric (0.6% increase in deaths among the elderly) but the EPA Rural vs Urban data is not worth a hill of beans.

Dave Wendt
March 31, 2012 12:23 pm

Robert Brown says:
March 31, 2012 at 9:46 am
“The point I’m making is that Willis’ presentation of the issue isn’t entirely fair — it is easy to point to many places and circumstances where mercury is a serious, anthropogenic, environmental hazard and where at the very least animal studies suggest that it contributes to the overall mortality and morbidity at some rate.”
I would suggest that most of those “places and circumstances” would be completely addressable under regulations that were created when the EPA was a pup. If these regulatory Leviathons would focus more of their attentions on situations where real and measurable hazards actually do exist instead of focusing on creating new standards which are well past the point where their increased costs far exceed any possible benefit I would probably have few objections to their continuing existence left. Last year EPA was pushing a new O3 standard that on most days couldn’t be met in the farthest back of beyond of Yellowstone Park. It was so unrealistic that even Obama was forced to step in to block it. Although there was speculation at the time that it was just a “sacrificial goat” offered up to allow him to appear as less of a complete tool of the environmental lobby than he actually is.
The creators of all this incredible flood of new regulations need to be required to do not just a cost/ benefit analysis for each new reg, but even more importantly an “opportunity cost” analysis. Opportunity cost is is the sum of other possibilities that we cannot pursue because we are investing huge amounts of effort and cash in mostly unproductive uses. Even if we were to stipulate to the EPA’s dubious claim of 11,000 lives saved by this new standard, the great costs and economic damage associated with it, if put to a myriad of more productive uses would likely yield vastly greater benefits while avoiding the serious peril introduced by reducing our electrical generation capacity.

Bernie McCune
March 31, 2012 12:26 pm

You would think that it is a regulatory agencies’ job to come up with a better idea of toxicity (or harm) for any of the compounds and processes that they are regulating. In this case the EPA should be the agency to have more research done on this issue rather than spend lots of money trying to fix a problem that is not necessarily a problem. I would be the last to say that this will be an easy task, but it would seem to demand more immediate attention. Perhaps take the physicians creed of “do no harm” to heart rather than to use some well meaning but wrong headed precautionary principle.

March 31, 2012 12:46 pm

Raymond Kuntz above makes a very good point concerning natural volcanic emissions of Hg into the environment. The values cited by Willis are the “conventional wisdom” obtained by measuring SO2 fluxes from volcanoes and using a standard “fudge factor” to estimate the corresponding amounts of Hg. The reason being that actual measurement of Hg is hard to do, but nature is rarely reducible to fudge factors and volcanoes of differing chemistry most certainly can be expected to have wide ranges in Hg content. It is quite possible, perhaps even likely that natural Hg fluxes are far larger than represented, and lest people not appreciate the significance of this, the higher the natural flux in the environment, the less significant human contributions become.
Another source, so far unmentioned in Willis’ article or the comment thread, is Hg from crematoria. Yes, emission controls will soon be required at funeral homes due to Hg emissions from the stacks. There are several ways to consider this observation; one is that humans have a fairly high amount of Hg in their bodies (tooth amalgam and prosthetic joints are sources) which doesn’t seem to be leading to massive mortality and that we are over estimating Hg dangers to public health. Another perspective is that as a society we have effectively removed so much Hg from legitimate pollution sources that what remains is minor amounts from the burning of human corpses after death.

March 31, 2012 12:52 pm

Robert Brown said @ March 31, 2012 at 7:37 am

It is mad as a hatter to oppose reasonable efforts to reduce the levels of mercury in the environment, or try to claim that the mercury that is there is harmless and that we didn’t put a lot of it there right where it is most dangerous.

That remark seems to have gone over people’s heads Robert 🙂
Mercury as a medicine has been popular with doctors from the 19thC through to the mid 20thC. Calomel (mercurous chloride, horn mercury) was used as a purgative to induce vomiting and diarrhoea. Just in case their patients were ingesting an insufficient quantity of mercury, calomel lotion was also applied directly to the skin. It was a common ingredient in teething powders for infants and was still in use when the Git was born.
A few of those who are known to have suffered and/or died from mercury poisoning at the hands of their physicians:
* Amadeus Mozart who died of the mercury cure he was given for syphilis.
* Ludwig van Beethoven whose deafness and death are thought to have been due to heavy metal poisoning including mercury.
* Napoleon Bonaparte whose hair analysis has revealed high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic.
* Abraham Lincoln whose erratic moods and insomnia are thought to have been due to the mercury medicine ‘blue mass’ he was taking for depression.
* The English King George III who ended up blind, deaf and insane.
* The mother and wife of Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian Tsar who were both poisoned with mercury according to recent analysis of their remains.
Oddly enough, the effect of mercury on those involved in its mining and extraction were known from Roman times at least.
Vermilion (cinnabar) was a popular natural food colouring for many centuries and is the sulphide of mercury. In the 20thC it was replaced by coal tar dyes as they are much cheaper. These, of course, are evil as they are made from coal and not natural.

March 31, 2012 12:58 pm

The EPA scientific assessment is here –
Main points –
There is a population of woman in the US who rely on ‘subsistence’ fishing for the majority of their diets. These woman eat up to 12 ounces of fish per day caught in rivers an lakes that have high levels of mercury. These woman may become pregnant. The offspring may suffer a 1 or 2 point IQ deficit. Power stations contribute ‘some’ portion of the mercury in these rivers.
Yep…first determine your political goal…then find some sub population that would be disproportionately effected if your political goal isn’t met…then find some disease or condition that may be exacerbated by this.
/sarc I’m pretty much allergic to flowers and most perfumes(I haven’t been in a department store with a perfume counter in decades)….I’ve banned them in my house….maybe Lisa Jackson can ban them in everyone’s house including hers.

March 31, 2012 1:03 pm

Your count of 80 billion light bulbs doesn’t smell right. That would be more than 400 bulbs per household. I’ve no stats, but in my experience, offices, industrial facilities, schools, etc., use fluorescent or halogen. Most of the incandescent bulbs I see are the ones in my home. Our home (1800 square foot 4 bedroom) has about 50 bulbs. About a quarter of those are in areas that are not lit daily and hence do not burn out as quickly. Are you sure it wasn’t 8 billion? That would make sense. If we assume double the lifespan for CFL’s, then we are talking about mercury in the magnitude of 10 tonnes per year rather than 100 tonnes per year. So of the same magnitude as all coal power generation.

March 31, 2012 1:17 pm

Dave Wendt said @ March 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm

If these regulatory Leviathons would focus more of their attentions on situations where real and measurable hazards actually do exist instead of focusing on creating new standards which are well past the point where their increased costs far exceed any possible benefit I would probably have few objections to their continuing existence left. Last year EPA was pushing a new O3 standard that on most days couldn’t be met in the farthest back of beyond of Yellowstone Park.

I can only agree. The proposed paper pulp mill in Tasmania exceeded pollution guidelines before construction has even commenced. One suspects that will never happen due to opposition from the general public. In what seems mindless pursuit of building the mill where people don’t want it to be built, most of the company’s money-making assets have been sold off. Shares have dwindled from $AU4.50 in December 2004 down to $AU0.11 two months ago (the last time I looked). It’s not only government employees that act in irrational ways it would seem.

Gail Combs
March 31, 2012 1:17 pm

Billy Liar says:
March 31, 2012 at 11:17 am
Can anyone explain why the fish-eating Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world? Do their fish only contain good mercury?
The Japanese families did not report the death to the government.
It even made it to WUWT: 1,000′s of Japans Centenarians Died Decades Ago, Average Life Expectancy “worse than we thought”…

Gail Combs
March 31, 2012 1:21 pm

neill says:
March 31, 2012 at 11:24 am
Who’s the CBA candidate?
I suspect that if each department of the federal government was subjected to independent cost-benefit analysis on its operations, the results would be shocking….
Oh I would love to see them have to do Zero-Based Budgeting every year like some of us in industry had to do.

Crispin in Johannesburg
March 31, 2012 1:24 pm

Willis, no one has mentioned much about the ocean mercury so here goes:
Last April I was privileged to attend a presentation at the globally important air quality measuring station at Cape Point, south of Cape Town. This was presented to the Univ of Johannesburg staff and hangers-on in the room next to the massive complex of equipment that rates as one of the best facilities in the world that monitors the air passing over the tip of Africa. The equipment is fabulous. The scientists in attendance are volunteers from around the world who work for a few months at a time for free.
One of the things they have been measuring is the mercury content of the sea air and also rain, I believe. They have had an instrument for years that read Hg continuously and reported the accumulation once per day. Those records go back years and show a very constant, or slightly cyclic quantity of Hg in the air coming off the Southern Ocean. As there is literally nothing anthropogenic south of Cape Point, the site is considered one of the best places to conduct this measurement of well mixed air.
Not too long ago they put in a new instrument which reported hourly instead of daily. The results were astonishing. Not only did the mercury level vary a great deal during the day, sometimes it dropped to zero for several hours then rose again! They have absolutely no idea how this is happening because it has always been assumed the Hg was constant and well mixed. Our presenter scientist said this added hourly resolution brought the unexpected fluctuation to light and that there is no known atmospheric mechanism for it. The speculation was that some airborne bacterial process might be responsible for taking the Hg out of the air, but completely?? No way. No chance at all.
What it means is that the process might not be an atmospheric one at all, but a short timespan activity in the ocean that gives off mercury, or not, through some as-yet-unknown mechanism in the sea. It probably means the mercury has a very short lifetime in the atmosphere. The fluctuations are large and not particularly related to any observable cause like the position of the sun or the time of day etc. It is clearly natural he said, because there is no anthropogenic cause to the S or SE which is where the prevailing wind comes from. The effect is observed frequently. The Hg flow just shuts off, then turns on again. It is not an instrumental issue. The disappearance is complete.
So….while you are looking at the ‘total produced by the ocean’ be very suspicious that the figure is unreliable. It may be much higher at certain times of the year, and in certain locations and have a very sort lifetime in the air. Trust no one on this because if the figures are given by a daily average, the spot level may be far greater and variable and the true exposure on land or sea unknown.
Something also worth mentioning is that all the mercury from coal is biogenic. Coal has mercury in it from natural sources. As the only requirement to render Hg emissions as safe as the massive output from unknown biogenic sources in the ocean and land, all that is required is dilution to the background level. There is no reason to ‘remove’ it at all, if the background level is reached.
The regulation proposed seems to be more aimed at demonising coal and promoting its commercial rival, natural gas, than actually reducing exposure for anyone or anything. The idiotic pollution of the Great Lakes was not caused by burning coal.
The addition of 40 tons of mercury in twisty lightbulb is still peanuts compared with industrial processes still apparently run by the Homer Simpsons of American industry who are richly deserving of attention from the EPA.

March 31, 2012 1:30 pm

Hg, metallic mercury is not very toxic, people did swallow it, and it was a very successful treatment for intestinal blockages (which are lethal in many cases).
Hg2+ is very bad indeed, and in the body and biosphere undergoes biotransformation into CH3Hg+, methylmercury. Just submitted a paper on this showing its ability to damage mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA (it is a lipophilic cation).
The majority of oceanic mercury comes from runoff of land based emissions. So the plot shown is rather misleading. HgCL2 and CH3HgCl are dense salts and sink into deep ocean. New Hg2+ enters the oceans via rivers, ends up in estuaries and ends up in the food chain. Eating the top predators of an oily food chain increases your mercury exposure; keep away from Tuna, Seals and Polar Bears. The inuit are at the top of such a food chain and are full of PCB’s, pesticides and methylmercury;
We would expect, a prior, that methylmercury would to be converted into dimethylmercury by the same bacterial systems that give rise to methylmercury.
Dr Karen Wetterhahn died of dimethylmercury poisoning, and we have no idea of the mechanism.
I actually wanted to look at DMM toxicity, but the safety committee vetoed it; essentially I would need a lab entirely dedicated to DMM and whose contents could be carted off to toxic waste landfill at the end of the study.
However, the release of long term, persistent, neurotoxins into the environment is very dumb. This is EXACTLY the type of thing the EPA should be looking at and regulating. The fact that the EPA/Obama administration has been increasing the levels of mercury in the environment due to its light-bulb strategy is a disgrace, Indeed, the administration is costing our future selves hundreds of billions in clean-up costs.

R Barker
March 31, 2012 1:41 pm

It is always good to have a realistic perspective on the problem to be addressed so that reasonable solutions may be selected from the array of options. Sometimes just a pause for a sanity check is all that is needed. Of course when the proposed solution does not pass the sanity check, it is not good to press on anyway. This seems to be a regular occurance at the EPA in recent years. I think they just skip the sanity check because there is no one there sane enough to do it any more.

March 31, 2012 1:43 pm

Willis: If you really want to have some fun, look at how the EPA calculates the so-called number of deaths. Years ago I researched this thoroughly concerning their claims of Radon “deaths”. Their math is serious prestidigitation and based on spurious presumptions, with a whole lot of “err conservatively” without any basis for doing so. With Radon, their math started out by saying 0-5000 deaths/yr (with 100% error bars). This wasn’t getting anyone’s attention, so a few years latere and with a little presto chango math, they revised that to 5000-10,000/yr (still with huge error bars). About a year later they started saying 20,000/yr without publishing any math justification! I suspect the same thing has happened to their “death math” regarding Mercury. After studying the Radon issue, I am more than skeptical of the EPA anytime they put out their death math.
PS: if you should look into the Radon death math, note that the EPA has flat out refused – and I repeat, flat out refused – to factor into their death math any studies that show a positive effect for low doses of Radon – of which there are quite a few. They perfected the art of cherry picking and hiding the decline a long time ago.

Gail Combs
March 31, 2012 1:55 pm

Crispin in Johannesburg says:
March 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm
…..The idiotic pollution of the Great Lakes was not caused by burning coal…..
Way back in the dark ages of my youth, I lived near a great lake. A friend of mine mentioned that ship loads of mercury were sank in the great lake (Ontario) per order of the US government at the end of WWII. He said his father was part of the operation. Also Eastman Kodak dumped a large amount of chemicals, so much that the Genesee River ran all different colors and stank to high heaven.

Crispin in Johannesburg
March 31, 2012 1:57 pm

@Dor Martyn
“The majority of oceanic mercury comes from runoff of land based emissions. So the plot shown is rather misleading”
With respect, I find this really unlikely. HG is part of normal ocean processes. The evidence for this from the Cape Point is very convincing. There is an almost continuous supply in air that literally comes from Antarctica. There is zero chance that this is from runoff.
I am open to any suggestions as to what the origin is, but the whole point of the work being done in South Africa is that there can be no anthropogenic source in the airborne Hg from the Southern Ocean.

Steve from Rockwood
March 31, 2012 2:00 pm

I don’t get the mercury from the ocean bit. Where is the mercury concentrated? At what levels? Or does the mercury jump out of the ocean in very low levels (e.g. non-harmful), hang around in the atmosphere for awhile and then jump back into the water? Does the high amount of mercury from the oceans come about because you are integrating very very small concentrations of mercury over a very very very extensive area (e.g. three verys divided by two verys).

Dr. Dave
March 31, 2012 2:37 pm

A few questions for DocMartyn,
How do you know that “The majority of oceanic mercury comes from runoff of land based emissions?” This sounds like speculation to me. Then I wonder is you actually read the abstract you linked to. It does not support the assertions made in your comment. Further, we know EXACTLY what killed Dr. Wetterhahn. Given that she spilled dimethyl mercury on her gloves and later had a serum concentration of 4,000 mcg/mL it’s quite apparent she died from accidental toxic exposure. LOTS of drugs and toxins display this kind of potency. Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD, accidentally ingested what is guessed to as little as 100 mcg of LSD and he was higher than a big dog on his bicycle ride home. I don’t know what the theoretical volume of distribution is for LSD, but I would imagine it was probably not until the 1980s when accurate quantitative serum concentrations could be made following a 100 mcg dose. So with serum concentrations dimethyl mercury at 4,000 mcg/mL there’s not too much mystery surrounding her death.
Mercury has been ubiquitous in our environment for thousands of years. Mankind has been consuming fish with mercury levels comparable to those found today for literally hundreds of years. Your call to avoid tuna (I already avoid seal and polar bear and have cut way back on walrus because it’s so damn hard to find fresh walrus in New Mexico) is based on speculation and your opinion, not on scientifically supported evidence. Look these articles over before you rush to judgment with your fish opinions:

Florian Schach Engage America
March 31, 2012 2:47 pm

EPA while it is an overbearing agency is at least trying to fix what mistakes it has made in the past. For example their attempt at applying new standards to newer plants is a step in the right direction. Applying these new plant rules to newer built plants rather than power plants over all may be somewhat daunting to power plant owners however overall it is a little less of a blow to everyone. At least by only applying it to new plants you acknowledge that there is a need for transition when it comes to regulatory policy. In the past costs of regulation can be astronomical and very daunting on businesses (, with this you at least give businesses a fighting chance to stick around and also change their operations so that they can stay afloat. It’s not perfect, but its at least something to help us go forward.

Dr Burns
March 31, 2012 2:50 pm

A “green” mercury lightbulb, that our government now forces us to use instead of the “dangerous” incandescent ones, if broken in the average sized bedroom, will produce 3 times the mininimum lethal concentration in the air.

March 31, 2012 3:27 pm

So we are chasing a long tail risk like mercury from a large stationary source like a coal fired electric plant. At the same time major cities across the nation are overflowing raw sewage into rivers during storms and the EPA turns a blind eye. This EPA is THE most politicized agency on record. It is time we open up the Clean Air Act and let some sanity in…

March 31, 2012 3:30 pm

Dear Florian:
Don’t be naive. This EPA will propose greenhouse gas rules on existing power plants next. Then all hell will break loose when America gets the bill for that one.

David A. Evans
March 31, 2012 4:09 pm

We know there are coal seams burning. Are there any environmental controls on these?
I often wonder why they don’t self extinguish due to CO2 build up. perhaps someone could enlighten me.

March 31, 2012 4:32 pm

David A. Evans said @ March 31, 2012 at 4:09 pm

We know there are coal seams burning. Are there any environmental controls on these?
I often wonder why they don’t self extinguish due to CO2 build up. perhaps someone could enlighten me.

From the Wikibloodypedia”

“One theory asserts that in May 1962, Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the volunteer fire company to clean up the town landfill, located in an abandoned strip mine pit next to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This had been done prior to Memorial Day in previous years, when the landfill was in a different location. The firefighters, as they had in the past, set the dump on fire, and let it burn for a time. Unlike in previous years, however, the fire was not extinguished.”
“The fire remained burning underground and spread through a hole in the rock pit into the abandoned coal mines beneath Centralia. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful and it continued to burn throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Adverse health effects were reported by several people due to the byproducts of the fire, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and lack of healthy oxygen levels.”

Coal pits usually have multiple entrances and lots of tunnels and are designed such that toxic gasses such as firedamp do not accumulate. Hot air rising from one or more shafts draw fresh air in through others thus providing plenty of oxygen.
A note on Wikipedia’s lack of accuracy. The Git notes that it states “Tasmania contributes 90% of Australia’s Cotton yield”. The truth is zero percent of Australia’s cotton is grown here.

March 31, 2012 5:27 pm

Dr. Dave,
1) We know where we are or have been generating mercury and where it ends up. You can measure the levels in the outfall of the Mississippi and observe the concentration up of fresh-water derived mercury in estuaries.
Estuaries have a very rich microbiological flora/fauna which cycle mercury between organic and inorganic mercury (note that cinnabar (HgS) is not inert in the presence of ferrous ion which is part of the hypoxic shunt).
An overview of the movement of mercury into and out of the gulf of Mexico is here;
Mercury is dense and its concentration increases with ocean depth. The deeper fish live, the more mercury they accumulate, per unit time of life.
2) “Further, we know EXACTLY what killed Dr. Wetterhahn. Given that she spilled dimethyl mercury on her gloves and later had a serum concentration of 4,000 mcg/mL it’s quite apparent she died from accidental toxic exposure”
She stated she spilled 3 drops of DMM on her glove, DMM has a density of 2.96 g/ml, so 3 drops is about 150 μl and so we have 0.45 grams on her glove max. NEJM think this was the dose she received 0.44 ml of liquid dimethylmercury.
Assuming the very unlikely possibility that all when in, and she had a blood volume of about 5 liters we have a maximum initial incident of 0.1 gram/liter or 100,000 μg/liter blood.
At 70 days post exposure she had 1,000 μg per liter blood, chelation treatment raised this to 4,000 μg per liter. She was excreting 57 μg in urine per 24 hours before chelation therapy, 1/8,000th of maximum initial dose, which rose to 39,800 μg per 24 hours, approximately 1/10th initial dose per day. Her hair showed a biological t1/2 of about 75 days, which is almost exactly the same as for methymercury.
Now, back to DimethylMercury, this is a neutral species. Hg2+ and CH3Hg+ are toxic cations that react with thios/selenols and iron/sulfur centers. Their reactivity is inversely proportional to halide concentration, as Cl- binds to both species mono/di valent cations and stops the -SH/-SeH reactivity. Blood has 100mM Cl-, cells 2 mM Cl- and mitochondrial, low nM, and so Cl- acts as a shield for Hg2+/CH3Hg+ in the same way as it does for cis-Platins. So they do most of their damage inside cells, specifically inside mitochondria.
Dimethylmercury will not react with thiols, selenols as it has cationic Hg, nor should it chelate to standard mercury chelators like dimercaptosuccinic acid. DMM must be converted to methylmercury, somewhere, somehow, into methylmercury.
This methylation could be very interesting in its own right, especially if dimethylmercury chelates to the phosphate ester backbone of DNA. It would be very nice to know if DMM methylates DNA and is converted to methylmercury.
Note also the very long latency of toxicity in Dr. Wetterhahn, the DMM took a long time to cause symptoms, far longer than methylmercury. Treatment didn’t do any good at all, they chelated and boosted her antioxidants with vitamin E and that failed. Long latency and then huge, uncontrolled crash.
DMM partitions into brain far better than MM, the DMM Log octanol/water partition coefficient at approx 100 mM Cl- for methylmercury is 1.7, but for DMM it is 2.26.
My guess is that DMM hides in brain and other fatty tissues, demethylates to MM, which then does its normal, nasy, thiol/selenol chemistry.
What I would like to know is the Hg2+ CH3Hg+ (CH3Hg)2 rates and partition coefficients, in the flora/fauna of the gut (especially in the newborn) and in brain.
In astrocytes/neurons I want to know the rate that DNA is damaged and methylated by both MM and DMM; I also want to know if methylation/damage to the mitochondrial genome is long term and additive.
I am interested in the long term effects of low levels of Hg2+, MM and DMM. I am interested in the pulse of lipid soluble toxins, like DMM, during maternal lipid mobilization that happens during gestation and lactation; especially on fetal/neonate brain.

Rob Crawford
March 31, 2012 6:10 pm

“Lake Erie is the body of water to avoid.”
And, yet, Port Clinton, OH has a walleye festival every year, and restaurants all over the area serve the locally caught fish.

Rob Crawford
March 31, 2012 6:12 pm

“Can anyone explain why the fish-eating Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world? Do their fish only contain good mercury?”
The lauded Mediterranean diet is also high in fish.

March 31, 2012 6:34 pm

Now let me check, according to peer reviewed science papers :
“Estimates show that 20% of global mercury emissions are from natural emissions, 40% from global re-cycling of previous anthropogenic activity, and 40% from current anthropogenic25 emissions 26. As shown in Table 4, North America contributed approximately 11% of the total global anthropogenic mercury emissions in 1995.”
As for the toxicity of mercury, in low concentrations, in the real world, one merely has to google/bing the words “Minimata Disease”.
This above all — to thine ownself be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. Polonius (Hamlet Act 2 Scene #3)

Peter Laux
March 31, 2012 7:12 pm

If mercury is so evil then why does the EPA allow “compact fluorescent bulbs” that are so beloved by alleged enviromentalists ? Each bulb contains 3 – 7mg of mercury and as most will end up in landfill, they will poison groundwater.

March 31, 2012 7:52 pm

Robert Brown and several other argue that mercury, today, is an important health problem, linked perhaps to people dying before they otherwise would. I am happy to say that this viewpoint is incorrect, except for the type of extreme “hot spot” that Robert referred to (mercury pits at an abandoned chlor-alkali plant).
Please see the link to EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis, from my post above at 7:47 AM. EPA nowhere claims that mercury kills. Many studies, of which I noted but one above, find that there is no relationship between mercury and cardiovascular diseases and stroke, for example.
The only benefit EPA claims, that it states is can be sure of and measure, is an increase in IQ, for children borne of mothers who eat fish whose methyl mercury concentrations will decrease when the new mercury reduction rules are in effect. These rules call for a 90% reduction in US power plant emissions of mercury, or about a 30 to 35 ton reduction. The benefit that EPA claims for this reduction in mercury emissions is 2/1000 of an IQ point reduction per child, or a total of 511 IQ points in a year across the entire US. EPA’s valuation of this “benefit” is between $500 K and $6.1 million, based upon reduced lifetime earnings, when the national total IQ is 511 points lower.
It makes sense that people, including those on WUWT, would think that mercury’s effects are much worse that EPA states, because we have been bombarded with environmental scare stories for 15 years.
There seem to be at least two reasons for why people think that mercury at today’s levels is so bad.
First, back in the day, when people were exposed to incredibly large amounts of mercury (think the actual “Mad Hatters,” making felt hats and handling liquid mercury day in and day out), people really did go mad. Those levels of exposure are tens of thousands of times higher than today. The dose makes the poison.
Secondly, propaganda matters. Wasn’t it Bill Clinton who famously said, “Perception is Reality”? If you repeat something enough times, people will believe it — even people at WUWT.
People throughout history have been exposed to mercury, for as long as there have been humans.
Several hundred tons are emitted every year by volcanos above ground, and probably twice that from undersea vents and volcanos, given that the ocean is about 70% of the earth’s surface. That is why the ocean is so high in mercury levels, and why so much evaporates from the ocean surface, Willis.
This historical level of exposure means that we can deal with the trace amounts that are always in our body; exposure throughout history means that our bodies have learned to live with reasonable amounts of mercury. Most mercury leaves the body after about 2 months, so if you eat fish steadily, incoming and outcoming mercury are roughly in balance.
Women in the Seychelles islands, whose steady state mercury levels are about 10 times EPA’s “danger” level, show no harm to themselves or to their kids, vs. low mercury controls. These kids for many years took tests of cognitive and emotional well being, in studies by the University of Rochester (Dr. Clark et al.), but showed no differences vs. controls.
Where Robert Brown is correct is where there has been an historical dump, with huge levels of mercury relative to what is deposited from air pollution — conditions like the dump pits at the chlor-alkali plant he mentions. But it is incorrect to conflate the damage from a megadump, with the lack of damages from the trace amounts of deposition from air pollution.
One last and different point. By now, many readers have found that the huge calculated economic “benefits” from EPA’s mercury rule are “co-benefits.” If they aren’t steeped in EPA-speak, they might think that such “co-benefits” somehow relate to mercury.
Translated, “co-benefits” means that the measures that will be used to reduce mercury emissions also reduce tiny particles in the air, in this case sulfates. This is because the control systems for mercury reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is transformed over hours and days into a particle, ammonium sulfate.
EPA’s official position is that any type of particle kills, regardless of chemical activity, or has any known biological activity, or not.
Further, EPA values any death it believes occurs from exposure to a particle of any type, at about $9.3 million per life lost. That “benefit” is the same, whether the person dies a day or a week before they otherwise would have, or 20 years.
On this point, many science advisors, including some of EPA’s, have advocated use of “Quality Adjusted Life Years,” or QALYs, in valuing mortality benefits. All this means is that you have a value for each year of life lost, so that someone dying a week before they would, at age 85 for example, is given a smaller valuation than someone dying in the prime of life.
I won’t belabor these last two sentences, I just want readers to reflect upon them for now.
Bottom line: the reason people aren’t harmed by the tiny amounts of mercury from US power plants (again, the reduction will be about 30 to 35 tons per year), is because people aren’t harmed by the roughly 7400 tons per year of emissions from other sources, mostly natural (volcanic emissions and re-emissions from oceans of hundreds of millions of years of mercury emissions into the oceans, from volcanos above and below the oceans). Human beings have had to become used to these emissions, that is why we aren’t damaged by them, IMHO.

March 31, 2012 8:25 pm

You are on target with regard to the amount of Hg reduction related to utilites. However, most people don’t know largest cost to meeting the Utility MACT standard is related to the EPAs decision to regulate HCl… not Hg or the other so called toxins. One of the EPA’s dirty little secrets is that it regulated HCl knowing full well that utility HCl emissions were well below established health standards. The EPA justified its regulation based on, get this, reducing… ocean acidification. Never mind that it didn’t have any data supporting the proposition that the proposed HCl reductions would in any way reduce ocean acidification & had not made a finding that ocean acidification was as problem.
So here’s the kicker, If Congress repeals regulation of CO2 on green house gases, then I would look to the EPA re-regulating CO2 based solely on a ocean acidification claim, using the Utility MACT as precedence.
Incidentally, had the EPA used the MACT to regulate only Hg, then the capital cost would have been minimal. Basically it would have required the installation of Activated Carbon Injection (ACI) systems.
Moreover, had the EPA provided sufficient time, under the new CSAPR rules, for utilities to install Wet Flue Gas Desulfurization (Wet FGD) systems (for SO2 removal); then the wet FGDs would have reduced Hg emissions by about 90% with no need to use ACI systems. It take a minimum of five years to design, permit, and install a Wet FGD. Under the worst case scenario a utility would have had to install and operate an ACI system until it could have installed a wet FGD.
Instead, the EPA only provided sufficient time under CSAPR rules to install Dry FGD systems. Dry FGD systems don’t remove Hg , force utilities to use medium sulfur coals, and require the use of high cost lime as a feedstock. Wet FGDs reduce Hg, use low cost limestone, and allow the use of less expensive high sulfur coals. In short, the Jackson EPA used the rule making process to force utilities to use higher cost coals, high cost reagents, and reduce Hg emission by the most expensive route.
The short version is that Americas could have had a substantive reduction in Hg emissions with little to no additional cost.
Incidentally, I participated in the inter-agency review of the Utility MACT rule. I can tell you there was deep concern that the EPA could only find ~$6 million/yr in cost benefits for Hg reduction against a cost of many billions. The Utility MACT is a travesty and an example of bad public policy created by ideological zealots.
Regards, Kforestcat

March 31, 2012 8:45 pm

John, there is a mineralization sink for mercury, the formation of Cinnabar (mercury(II) sulfide (HgS)) and an input, volcanoes. Between the input and sink, we would have a steady state level in different habitats. inorganic mercury is not volatile, but methymercurychloride is, but only just.
Burning coal does introduce more mercury into the atmosphere, which then gets into the ground, into water, into rivers, lakes, estuaries and finally the ocean. There is sinks, ends up as cinnabar, and essentially disappears from the biosphere,
Much of the mercury on land and in the oceans comes from human activity, it is mercury that is kicking around the biosystem being chemically and biologically transformed between organic/inorganic forms. It will all end up mineralized underground or in the bottom of the ocean.
However, mercury is a toxin, it does attack the brain and we can stop dumping in the areas we live with low cost measures.
The scandal is not that people do not like mercury in the environment, but that the politicization of the EPA means instead of trying to get the biggest bang for buck, attempting to phase out mercury in light sources, they are attacking coal powered power stations.
Trying to stop mercury entering ground water and the food chain is a very good idea, as many people eat seafood, this means stopping mercury getting into the oceans. .

March 31, 2012 9:03 pm

So humans contribute about 50% of the mercury polution. Oceans were a big surprise to me as well. China, wow. (Europe + North America)*2=China. I thought India would be higher.
So maybe the focus should be to get the other countries to clean up. Mexico is part of North America and is dragging our average down. Need them to clean up but then where would the advantage be for companies wanting to do things cheap and stupid?

March 31, 2012 9:22 pm

If you want to confound a ‘green’ advocate touting CFLs, try this line of questioning:
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone replaced every lightbulb in their house with a CFL? (of course!)
The average house has between 50 – 100 lightbulbs (don’t forget the exterior flood lights!). (ok)
Did you know that Hurricane Katrina destroyed an estimated 340,000 homes, many washed out to sea, in less than 48 hours? (ummm)
How many CFLs would that have been? How many hundreds of kgs of mercury released, much of it into the Gulf of Mexico, concentrated over perhaps just a hundred miles? (errr)
And of course that area is a major fishing/shrimping/oyster producing region. (uh oh).
Isn’t that nice. You’ve just destroyed an industry, destroyed thousands of jobs, and poisoned a major source of this nation’s seafood.
Still like CFLs? (^&**$)

March 31, 2012 9:42 pm

“Environmentalists” seek an immaculate world free of chemicals and elements and such . It wasn’t that long ago that Greenpeace declared war on chlorine . Apparently that was so dumb they gave up after a couple of years .
All these various metals and compounds are naturally occurring . Hg is in coal because , and in the proportions it is , because it was in the biosphere that became the coal in about those proportions . These substances are part of the fabric of life and fear of them greatly exaggerated , If they can declare the very building block of life a pollutant , and salt and calories dangerous to the diet , what chance do trace metals have ?

Larry in Texas
March 31, 2012 9:50 pm

Robert Brown says:
March 31, 2012 at 9:46 am
Dr. Brown, I respect your scientific knowledge and I learn a lot every time you post something here. But I think the point must be made here again. EPA approaches what are essentially local problems with an extremely broad sweep, without really assessing what the real problem is and whether or not it really accomplishes anything with the real costs that will be incurred.
Methyl mercury and mercuric cyanide are indeed, dangerous and toxic chemicals. But is it really fair to single out coal-fired power plants when such plants are probably operating at their maximum effectiveness now? Is it fair to just go after the low hanging fruit?
I also think that you are being unfair to Willis, because you have not cited anything that would contradict the Pirrone paper that Willis cited. Perhaps there is something, I would like to learn about it if there is evidence to the contrary; but it is interesting to learn here that the largest sources of mercury are natural. I don’t want to dismiss the dangers of mercury or mercury poisoning. But I don’t want EPA killing gnats with sledgehammers, only to find that the gnats remain AND that the big bugs are still out there screwing us up even worse.
Thanks, Willis, for your fine work.

Larry in Texas
March 31, 2012 9:59 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
March 31, 2012 at 5:39 pm
The high incidence of environmental groups such as EDF suing EPA, and then receiving grants from EPA, is an old political trick. Often, EPA encouraged environmental groups to sue them in order to provide EPA with political cover. This is because many of the things they wanted to do were either legally dicey in their minds, or were politically unpalatable to either industry or to Congress. So it is not any surprise to see EPA giving groups like EDF grants. It is the most satisfying mutual back-scratching operation in all of the Federal bureaucracy.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
March 31, 2012 10:00 pm

From TRM on March 31, 2012 at 9:03 pm:

So humans contribute about 50% of the mercury polution. (…)

Nah. From the Abstract of the paper Willis used:

(…) On an annual basis, natural sources account for 5207Mg of mercury released to the global atmosphere, including the contribution from re-emission processes, which are emissions of previously deposited mercury originating from anthropogenic and natural sources, and primary emissions from natural reservoirs. Anthropogenic sources, which include a large number of industrial point sources, are estimated to account for 2320Mg of mercury emitted annually. (…) Therefore, our current estimate of global mercury emissions suggests that the overall contribution from natural sources (primary emissions + re-emissions) and anthropogenic sources is nearly 7527Mg per year, the uncertainty associated with these estimates are related to the typology of emission sources and source regions.

Mg is Mega-gram = 1000 kilograms = 1 metric tonne.
2320/7527=0.3082, human contribution is only 31% (rounded up).

March 31, 2012 10:06 pm

Great job Willis. The last two posts on mercury really need to be published. The results are enough to stop EPA cold, if it were possible.
But, alas, I agree with Louis. The EPA objective is not pollution control or saving lives. The EPA objective is to regulate American industry and energy enough to drive us bankrupt and into the tyranny of socialism and/or communism. EPA is all about the leftist agenda of gaining power and tax money on the road to socialism.

Larry in Texas
March 31, 2012 10:33 pm

The Pompous Git says:
March 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm
Um, Pompous, before you jump to conclusions about Bonaparte and being “poisoned by his physician,” read these articles:

April 1, 2012 1:05 am

There is still a bigger point. The emissions of natural mercury are mostly harmless. The common forms found in nature (soil, trees, coal) are easily processed by humans.
Power plant emissions include the natural forms, not the toxic of methyl mercury form.

April 1, 2012 1:42 am

Somewhere in the South San Francisco Bay Area is a small river. I has signs all along it saying “Do Not Eat The Fish” or some such. It’s got a load of Mercury in it. From where it originates in the hills… that have a load of Cinnabar in them. At one time we mined a lot of it (to get the mercury out to do interesting things with it). Now we just let it erode into the river, then in the bay, and then out into the ocean…
As it’s nature doing it, everyone’s OK with it, I guess…
It is also known as Vermilion…
The wiki says:

Generally cinnabar occurs as a vein-filling mineral associated with recent volcanic activity and alkaline hot springs. Cinnabar is deposited by epithermal ascending aqueous solutions (those near surface and not too hot) far removed from their igneous source.
It is associated with native mercury, stibnite, realgar, pyrite, marcasite, opal, quartz, chalcedony, dolomite, calcite and barite.
Cinnabar is found in all localities that yield mercury, notably Puerto Princesa (Philippines); Almadén (Spain); New Almaden (California); Hastings Mine and St. John’s Mine, Vallejo, California; Idrija (Slovenia); New Idria (California); Giza, Egypt; Landsberg, near Obermoschel in the Palatinate; Ripa, at the foot of the Apuan Alps and in the Mount Amiata (Tuscany); the mountain Avala (Serbia); Huancavelica (Peru); Murfreesboro, Arkansas; Terlingua (Texas); and the province of Guizhou in China, where fine crystals have been obtained. It was also mined near Red Devil, Alaska on the middle Kuskokwim River. Red Devil was named after the Red Devil cinnabar mine, a primary source of mercury.
Cinnabar is still being deposited at the present day from the hot waters of Sulphur Bank Mine in California and Steamboat Springs, Nevada.

Notice how often California shows up in that list?
I’d also point out there are a lot of places with ‘recent volcanic activity’ in the ocean…
Now think just a bit about where life evolved… Think maybe we can handle a little bit of mercury in our sea water?

April 1, 2012 2:26 am

Larry in Texas said @ March 31, 2012 at 10:33 pm

The Pompous Git says:
March 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm
Um, Pompous, before you jump to conclusions about Bonaparte and being “poisoned by his physician,” read these articles:

Not much jumping; Boney’s death has always been controversial. Here’s the analysis from Napoleon’s Death: New Findings From His Autopsy Ribon Ari , MD and Former Assoc. Professor and Chief of Allergy-Immunology at NY Medical College.

“The stomach was perforated through and through in the center…the aperture closed by the adhesion of the liver. The stomach was filled with a considerable quantity of substances of a color resembling the sediment of coffee which exhaled an infectious odor.” (This is processed blood from a severe irritation with hemorrhage caused by an enormous dose of Calomel, a laxative used at that time.) It did not require medical knowledge, just common sense, not to give a sick patient, who had vomited repeatedly and had loose bowel movements, an increase in the accepted dose of one grain of Calomel, to a dose ten times that amount. Napoleon’s valet, Louis Marchand, knew better when he refused to give the Calomel to him but Dr. Arnott won and a moribund Napoleon got his last dose of gross medical error. Every historian writes that this enormous dose of Calomel was given by the British Dr. Arnott unintentionally. Or was it?

I suspect we will never know what was truly the final cause of Napoleon’s death, but claomel almost certainly played a role.

April 1, 2012 2:30 am

Oh, and as a reminder for old folks and education for young ones:
When I was a kid, just about every cut was doused with mercurochrome. Stuff worked wonders on stopping skin infections.
Now it’s banned by the FDA. (Well, not actually banned, just moved to the “needs testing” group out of GRAS, and as the stuff sold for nearly nothing being cheaper than dirt, nobody can make money off of testing it. It is still widely sold in other countries due to being so cheap.)
And from the wiki on mercury:

In 2005, China was the top producer of mercury with almost two-thirds global share followed by Kyrgyzstan. Several other countries are believed to have unrecorded production of mercury from copper electrowinning processes and by recovery from effluents.
Because of the high toxicity of mercury, both the mining of cinnabar and refining for mercury are hazardous and historic causes of mercury poisoning. In China, prison labor was used by a private mining company as recently as the 1950s to create new cinnabar mercury mines. Thousands of prisoners were used by the Luo Xi mining company to establish new tunnels. In addition, worker health in functioning mines is at high risk.

The European Union directive calling for compact fluorescent bulbs to be made mandatory by 2012 has encouraged China to re-open deadly cinnabar mines to obtain the mercury required for CFL bulb manufacture
. As a result, environmental dangers have been a concern, particularly in the southern cities of Foshan and Guangzhou, and in the Guizhou province in the south west.

But that’s in China. It’s OK if they leak mercury into the ocean by the ton and ship it to us in fragile glass bulbs… after all, they are doing it to save the planet…

April 1, 2012 2:58 am

Heystoopidone says:
March 31, 2012 at 6:34 pm
Now let me check, according to peer reviewed science papers :
“Estimates show that 20% of global mercury emissions are from natural emissions, 40% from global re-cycling of previous anthropogenic activity, and 40% from current anthropogenic25 emissions 26. As shown in Table 4, North America contributed approximately 11% of the total global anthropogenic mercury emissions in 1995.”
I am reluctant to place too much credence on a paper that claims that “estimates show” something. Estimates don’t “show” anything. This raises the same junk science red flag as papers that describe model outputs as “experiments”.

Geoff Sherrington
April 1, 2012 5:16 am

polistra says: March 31, 2012 at 6:42 am Mercury is a genuine and serious pollutant.
It would help your case if you gave hospital figures for your country that show whether anyone ever goes to hospital with mercury poisoning; or whether urban myths have arisen from the unusual Minimata episode where a certain couple of chemical forms of mercury did the damage.
Personally, as a chemist, I’ve handled kilos of mercury and I am unaware of any damage to my health.

April 1, 2012 6:51 am

To DocMartyn:
Doc, there are several sinks for mercury, mainly at the bottom of water bodies. But mercury is nevertheless still in steady state in the oceans. No matter what we do, the combination of natural emissions above and below the sea, combined with the huge amounts circulating in the oceans, will ensure that the oceans will always have about the same amounts of mercury as they currently have.
Fish with the largest amounts of mercury are the large ocean going fish which bioaccumulate mercury. Blue fin tuna, for example, can have roughly 100 times the mercury content of salmon or flounder per ounce of meat. These levels are higher than in freshwater fish. These levels will barely change when emissions of humans are reduced.
Of course, at a high enough level, we all know that mercury is a neurotoxin, but that isn’t the issue. To agree with your point — if people eat too much top of the line pelagic predators, they can get neurotoxic effects, like confusion and hair loss — but reducing manmade emissions won’t affect methyl mercury levels in bluefin tuna, or marlin, or large swordfish. Only eating less of these top of the line predatory fish will reduce that risk.
The issue is whether mercury causes neurotoxic effects at current levels in the atmosphere, and whether the reduction of 30 to 35 tons from US coal fired power plants (in a pool of about 7,000 tons per year total emissions) has any appreciable beneficial effect on people.
EPA has concluded that this reduction has only one beneficial effect that they can identify and measure, supposing that their understanding of mercury’s effects are correct. That effect is on the IQ of children still in the womb when their mothers eat fish. EPA concluded that the reduction in mercury that they are requiring will cause the IQ of 240,000 children to increase by an aggregate of 511 IQ points across the country, or 2/1000 of an IQ point per child. Assuming that this is a statistically significant result, it is so tiny to be unnoticeable. EPA calculates that this benefit is worth between $500 K and $6 million, based upon improved lifetime earning from the total nationwide increase of 511 IQ points.
In my first post, at 7:47 AM on March 31, I gave a link to the EPA document that says this, and pointed out the pages and tables to look at. Please read that, so you will know that I haven’t stretched anything or ignored anything — I’m reporting to you what EPA itself says.
To summarize: as with CO2, the issue isn’t whether at some substantially higher level mercury wouldn’t poison people and animals. We already know that, as we know that CO2 levels of, say, 3,000 ppm would have substantial temperature and other effects on the earth that would be far more minor at, say, the 600 ppm we will surely reach.
It is the same with mercury. Because mercury (as an element, that cannot be destroyed) is omnipresent in the environment, and because anyone who eats fish or scallops or shrimp or clams, etc., is exposed to mercury, humans over the eons have gotten used to having small amounts of mercury in our bodies, with no harm. The amount contributed to the global pool of mercury from US power plants is miniscule, and EPA has rightly concluded in their Regulatory Impact Analysis that they can find only one tiny benefit from the reduction. We can’t mandate the elimination of mercury from the environment, and there is no appreciable benefit from reducing the tiny amounts that the US puts into the atmosphere. But there are large costs which will decrease incomes and increase unemployment.

Steve Keohane
April 1, 2012 8:25 am

Willis, some random ramblings… I remember in the 60s, my father’s delight at an oceanic fish that had been frozen since the 1880s was tested for mercury, and the levels were higher than the then current levels. Last week a local school was evacuated due to a spill of mercury in the chem lab…I remember carrying a small bottle of mercury with a silver dime in it, 2nd grade?, long enough to dissolve the features from the dime. It was interesting how the surface of the silver was ‘mercury’-philic.

April 1, 2012 8:32 am

DocMartyn says:
March 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm

(Many things well worth listening to…)
The addition of 40 tons of mercury in twisty lightbulb is still peanuts compared with industrial processes still apparently run by the Homer Simpsons of American industry who are richly deserving of attention from the EPA.
Also true. Homer Simpsons past, present, and probably future. For example, there is the mercury dumped into the waterways of California during the gold rush. Rather enormous amounts of elemental mercury were used to pull gold out of gold-bearing rock. In addition to damaging the brains of the humans that participated, sooner or later nearly all of that mercury ended up on the bottom of rivers in direct contact with the surrounding biosphere. This problem continues today:
At 1000 tons (or so) a year, it is the second largest source of mercury being dumped into the environment (behind the burning of fossil fuels). It causes very significant local contamination of gold mining sites all over the world (many of them run by wildcat prospectors who are e.g. going into the rainforest, digging up a patch of it, running large parts of the surface dirt and rock (known to contain gold) through the amalgam process, and in the process gradually boiling the mercury into the atmosphere and rinsing it into the waterways. Paper mills have similar problems (unless they are built to exacting standards).
Mercury is one of those substances for which there is no “safe” level. Mercury in the body — even a teensy bit — can be the proximate cause of cancer through well-verified chemical pathways, so it is just a crapshoot. Sure, small levels lead to a small risk, and we cannot eliminate that risk entirely because mercury is present throughout the environment at low levels naturally, but it is hardly unreasonable to want to lower that risk as much as possible.
Regarding the mercury vapor observed coming off of the ocean from a direction without anthropogenic sources — note well that does not in any way prove that the mercury involved with not originally anthropogenic in origin. We burn coal. Mercury vapor moves into the atmosphere, where it gradually settles out in e.g. soot and particulates and washes out in rain, with a lot of it ending up in waterways or the ocean. In the ocean, it is picked up in the food chain and/or concentrated in layers of water at certain temperatures.
In either case, simple fluctuations in water currents carrying mercury could cause it to rise to the surface at certain times of the day and be carried into the atmosphere along with water vapor. E.g. when it warms, the partial pressure rises, if the state of the currents involved is right. Or it could be released as a side effect of photosynthesis from algae that have taken it up. It isn’t that difficult to come up with hypotheses to explain how mercury could come to be released in bursts and non-uniformly from the ocean, and observing those fluctuations in no way proves that some fraction of the mercury in question isn’t anthropogenic — indeed, it almost certain is, the only question being what fraction.
To whoever asserted that there is “3 x the lethal dose” of mercury released into a room after a CF lightbulb breaks, thank you for that. I didn’t realize that I was dead several times over, but it does explain a lot. Or perhaps you meant “an entirely sublethal dose, unless you seal the room and sit in it, breathing, far longer than the oxygen in the room would last”. I’m not saying breaking CF lightbulbs is a great thing to do, but in a reasonably ventilated environment it is certainly not “lethal”
To people who are making the argument that oily fish is good for you, mercury or not, the correct argument is that oily fish is good for you, in particular good for your heart. Heart disease being rampant, the benefit from eating fish instead of beef and pork is pretty pronounced. Mercury is bad for you, but it takes a long time to kill you unless you are unlucky and get cancer from it sooner rather than later — death from cancer being a rather discrete event — and the overall risk from the mercury is smaller than the benefit from the fish, especially if you are old and may not live long enough to experience the worst of the effects of the mercury anyway. Also, eating fish occasionally further minimizes the risk because mercury does have a half-life in the human body — perhaps DocMartyn can enlighten us as to what it is — so that one can keep levels down by giving it time to be eliminated between meals.
However, who seriously wants to argue that the same oily fish without the mercury isn’t better for you? This isn’t like bacteria — I’m happy to believe that eating fish lightly contaminated with various bacteria is good for you, keeping one’s immune system strong and all of that, just like catching the rare cold keeps your immune system strong and helps prevent cancer — there is no plausible benefit to having mercury or lead in your system, only risk.
There is a reasonable amount of evidence in the form of differential cancer and chronic disease rates that living in a chemically toxic environment reduces life expectancy. In general it is not possible (or certainly is not easy) to fractionate that risk, in part because it is probably nonlinear and multifactorial, so that a moderate overexposure to mercury in a person whose environment is otherwise chemically neutral or beneficial may have less effect than “normal” exposure in a person whose system is already stressed by a surplus of lead. History is replete with examples of entire civilizations that poisoned themselves with (for example) lead plumbing (lead being “Plumbum”, the Romans come to mind), or as already noted Beethoven, thought to have poisoned himself through his habit of licking the point of his lead pencil (made in those days with actual lead) while composing. At one point in time we were making a pretty good effort at doing so by using leaded gasoline.
Personally I think it is absolute peachy of the EPA to do things like ban leaded gasoline and require coal burning plants to scrub soot and mercury and sulphur out of their exhaust — I don’t care if soot is harmless, it is ugly, I don’t consider any avoidable large scale chronic addition of mercury to the environment to be desirable, and while sulphur itself is ubiquitous and beneficial, sulfphur dioxide in air rains down as acid and causes observable damage. Sure, nitrous oxide is also produced and rains down as acid, but nitrates are eventually beneficial and indeed, the food chain relies on nitric acid produced by lightning to fertilize plants.
I can hardly do better than to conclude with:
Personally, I used to just fish like hell the two weeks I spent on Huron every summer and eat anything I caught (except catfish — bottom dwelling and fatty, no safe consumption limit amount in spite of the fact that I caught some big old cats over the years) and rely on Alpha Lipoic Acid (antioxidant and chelating agent) to help protect against the mercury and PCBs, just as I do for sashimi grade tuna and wild caught salmon now. The mercury is in any event in the very omega-3 fatty acids that are the primary benefit of eating oily fish, so the best one can do is try to protect against the risk while still preserving the benefit.
Still, because I fish — a lot, and in precisely those estuaries on the Carolina coast where anthropogenic mercury is concentrated — and love to eat those top of the food chain fish, I would love for the human race to ameliorate the rate at which we contribute to the baseline concentration of mercury in those estuaries. However, it is absolutely true that mercury from coal burning plants is a tiny fraction of the mercury levels there. A very recent study by some UNC people working at their marine lab (down the road a few miles from Duke’s where I teach in the summer) concluded that by far the greatest source of estuarine mercury was riverine input, basically mercury washing down the Cape Fear or Neuse rivers. A substantial amount of that mercury is very likely anthropogenic in origin, but not from burning things — leftover elemental mercury sitting on riverbeds left over from North Carolina’s gold rush (we were once upon a time the largest gold producer in the United States) and from the paper mills that were built to use the state’s ample timber resources down east.
The paper I looked at does suggest that there are sinks for mercury as well as sources — given time, mercury does clear out of a system — but the current levels are a dynamic balance between sources and sinks. It appears that baseline mercury levels in NC’s estuaries have actually been decreasing over the last 40 years, probably because of the disappearance of the paper mills and much tighter regulations on the ones that are still in operation, but even at low concentrations (order of ten parts per trillion) the food chain concentrates the mercury to parts per million and higher, in the worst biologically active form.
Which leads me by a tortuous route back to my original point. Yes, a cost-benefit analysis is important. There is no safe level of mercury, but there is a point of diminishing returns in efforts to control it. However, people will always choose to minimize or ignore the risks if those risks are displaced by years or decades and submerged into a morass of other contributing processes, which is how so very many people manage to smoke cigarettes because they will only probably or possibly kill them or cause them misery in the future. Tightly regulating the use of mercury in the making of paper and bleach and in other industrial applications is a no-brainer. Regulating mercury emissions from coal plants may or may not be worth the cost, but overall I personally would rather be safe(r) than sorry, and scrubbing coal stack output seems advised anyway just to keep the air generically “clean”.

April 1, 2012 8:42 am
Gail Combs
April 1, 2012 9:48 am

DocMartyn says:
March 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm
…..The fact that the EPA/Obama administration has been increasing the levels of mercury in the environment due to its light-bulb strategy is a disgrace, Indeed, the administration is costing our future selves hundreds of billions in clean-up costs.
One of the interesting points in the EPA’s National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutant Emissions From Coal-and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units…FINAL RULING
Was the inclusion of this paragraph on the comments.

…..The EPA received over 900,000 comments…. The comments express concerns about the presence of Hg in the environment and the effect it has on human health, concerns about the costs of the rule, how challenging it may be for some sources to comply and questions about the impact it may have on this country’s electricity supply and economy. Many comments provided additional information and data that have enriched the factual record and enabled EPA to finalize a rule that fulfills the mandate of the CAA while providing flexibility and compliance options to affected sources–options that make the rule less costly and compliance more readily manageable….!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OAR-2011-0044-5758

Nothing is said about whether those comments were about the new mercury-containing light bulbs or mercury coal. Heck until I read this article and the final ruling I only knew about the mercury in the light bulbs because activists were throwing a fit about it a few years ago. After a bit of looking it would seem mercury from new sources in the USA is a non-problem. That is why the twisty light bulbs would make a “major impact”
My WAG is that when the mercury-containing light bulbs outrage hit a couple years ago the EPA countered with the largest source of Mercury was coal powered plants from their 1997 Report to Congress. Of course nothing was said about the fact that all the big sources had already been taken care of. 75% of the industrial demand for mercury having declined between l988- l996 and the remaining biggie, the amount from municipal and medical waste incineration was expected to decline at least 90 percent from 1995 levels by 2000. In other words all the low hanging fruit had been taken care of already.
Googling: new mercury-containing light bulbs returns About 21,500,000 results so that is where the concern was.
Googling mercury coal returns about 18,400,000 results with the first one being from the EPA. mercury coal EPA returns about 2,680,000 results and mercury coal 2011 returns About 8,390,000 results. Like I said I think this was “miss-direction”

Notice: March 2011
EPA has proposed standards to limit mercury, acid gases and other toxic pollution from power plants. This rule will replace the court-vacated Clean Air Mercury Rule.

And then:

Mercury [Last Updated on Tuesday February 07, 2012]
Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is present throughout the environment. Human activity can release some of that mercury into the air, water and soil. In the U.S., coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury emissions to the air. The EPA is working to reduce the amount of mercury in the environment.

Notice how that is different in tone from this report of 1997.
Mercury Study Report to Congress: Overview published in 1997

Mercury Control Technologies
Mercury is widely used in industry because of its diverse properties and serves as a process or product ingredient in several industrial sectors, however, industrial demand for mercury has declined by about 75 percent between l988 and l996, due largely to the elimination of mercury additives in paints and pesticides and the reduction of mercury in batteries. Most of the emissions of mercury are produced when waste or fuel containing mercury is burned. The U.S. EPA has already finalized emission limits for municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators. As a result, by the year 2000, emissions from these categories will decline at least 90 percent from 1995 levels.</b. In addition, mercury emission limits have been proposed for hazardous waste incinerators.
The largest remaining identified source of mercury emissions are coal-fired utility boilers. Although a number of mercury control technologies are being evaluated for utility boilers, most are still in the research stages, making it difficult to predict final cost-effectiveness as well as the time required to scale-up and commercialize the technologies. Because the chemical species of mercury emitted from boilers varies from plant to plant, there is no single control technology that removes all forms of mercury. There remains a wide variation in the end costs of control measures for utilities and the possible impact of such costs on utilities. Preliminary estimates of national control costs for utility boilers (based on pilot scale data) are in the billions of dollars per year. Ongoing research, as well as research needs related to mercury controls for utilities, are described in the document….

April 1, 2012 10:17 am

You know that in warfare, a ratio of 5 wounded to 1 killed is fairly true for centuries of warfare. It is also one of the ways we were told that the Iraqis back in the first Gulf War were leaving their soldiers to die on the battlefield – not enough wounded showing up in the hospitals. So, with that consideration, if 11,000 are supposed to die from Mercury, then a large portion must end up in hospital every year with acute mercury poisoning. Due to the different nature of the “trauma”, I would expect the sick/dead ration to be much higher than 5 to 1.
Since you looked into it: are the hospitalized with mercury poisoning stats as high as necessary for this narrative to work?

April 1, 2012 10:22 am

It would help your case if you gave hospital figures for your country that show whether anyone ever goes to hospital with mercury poisoning; or whether urban myths have arisen from the unusual Minimata episode where a certain couple of chemical forms of mercury did the damage.
Personally, as a chemist, I’ve handled kilos of mercury and I am unaware of any damage to my health.

Precisely. And you might not be for ten or twenty more years, and the cancer that you get might or might not come with a label on it saying “caused by DNA damage due to mercury”.
As a chemist, you know the difference between poisoning — active and acute damage caused by ingesting a harmful substance — and the damage done by carcinogens and long acting toxins. People smoke for years and aren’t acutely poisoned by the tobacco smoke — or rather, they are, but at sublethal levels — but there is no doubt whatsoever that in the long run there is an enormous increase in the morbidity and mortality of smokers compared to the general population, one with considerable nonlinear synergy with secondary and tertiary toxins and carcinogens and risk factors.
Mercury (unlike zinc, copper, iron) is not a nutrient. The body makes no beneficial use of mercury whatsoever. Even if certain mercury-containing medicines are now or ever were beneficial as a chemotherapeutic agent (to treat e.g. syphilis or other illnesses) compared to nothing at all, the levels of mercury in the diet are utterly inadequate to receive any benefit of this sort under any circumstances, and as a chemist surely you can understand the reaction pathways where biologically active mercury damages DNA and interferes with metabolism as well as the pathways whereby relatively harmless mercury metal is converted to the toxic, biologically active forms (and vice versa — it is a two way street).
As for mercury poisoning, there are IDC-9 and 10 codes for mercury poisoning — of course it happens. Here is just one CDC report of a case:
Cases like this were no doubt far more prevalent back when mercury barometers where commonplace, but note at the bottom of the article that acute mercury poisoning symptoms are mild and non-specific and hence easy to miss or misdiagnose. One has to do a heavy metal toxicology screen to positively determine that is what is going on, and my wife and hospitals don’t order that for every patient who comes through the door with chronic fatigue syndrome or flulike symptoms. If diagnosed, there are chelating therapies for acute mercury poisoning. But that is not what this discussion is about! It is about the far more difficult to pin down health risks of chronic, low grade exposure to mercury. There one must rely on a mix of nearly anecdotal histories of human exposure and long term sequellae, and animal studies that clearly delimit the probable (and substantial) risks of various levels of chronic exposure.
Finally, as a chemist I am guessing that you used reasonable precautions when working with mercury, just as you would/did working with any other toxic or potentially harmful substance. I very much doubt that you heated it to boiling in the open air of a closed room because that would be stupid (or heated it to boiling at all outside of a hood, if then). Gold miners seeking to recover gold from amalgam in the rain forests of Brazil or Indonesia have no idea of the risks and have no idea of how to avoid them. Acute mercury poisoning is far from unknown there, and it will be decades before the differential health effects fully resolve from the chronic exposure and toxification of the environment.
Mercury is a dangerous, useful, element. As cinnabar, it is pretty. As fulminate of mercury, it is a foundation of modern guns and warfare. As any of a variety of mercury-containing compounds, it is an antiseptic. As yet another alloy, it was a useful and inexpensive way of repairing decay-damaged teeth. It helps one extract gold from native rock without having to melt it all and fractionate the resulting mess. It is a convenient material for electrolyzing NaCL into sodium and chlorine, so that the two components can be separately used for a variety of useful purposes (such as making bleach).
In the body, though, mercury is strictly at best neutral, and in general has a gradually increasing non-zero risk of negative sequellae that often occurs as quantum events in human life — getting cancer or not getting cancer — where some fraction of the occurring cancers are almost certainly caused by mercury, only we can never tell which ones.
Just as lead is a similarly useful but dangerous metal (but not for use in paint, gasoline, or the household plumbing), it seems entirely reasonable to want to do our best to avoid creating or aggravating concentrations of mercury that our best science suggests will result in increased human misery and suffering (quite possibly our own). Some of the measures used to control it are obvious; others are debatable (and I am not suggesting that this debate not occur or that the EPA is correct in their recent action). But it is not reasonable to enter the debate with the assertion that mercury is not toxic or dangerous when we know perfectly well that neither of these is true. Even Willis is asserting that the problem isn’t “is mercury a good or bad thing in the environment” — if we could wave a magic wand and eliminate it entirely from the biosphere of course we would. It is “does the degree of amelioration of the threats of mercury, given our current best knowledge of the dangers, brought about by scrubbing coal plant exhaust at very high expense, justify that expense”.
I think his argument is strong that it does not, but it is not yet (to me) persuasive because I simply don’t have that good a feel for the global numbers involved and do not agree that just the observation that there is a “lot” of mercury vapor observed above the oceans (where the mercury content of the oceans is not even parts per trillion, so we’re still not talking a high concentration) is relevant to the problem of the non-uniform deposition of mercury downwind of smokestacks, nor to the problem of its accumulation as bioactive mercury in the waterways those stacks precipitate it out into. It might be utterly irrelevant as far as average concentration in the air is concerned and yet still be a serious problem in the end-stage estuaries at the bottom of a biological filtration and concentration process. I’m not saying that it is, I’m saying that I don’t think that he has by any means provided proof that it is not, especially over decadal or century long time scales. Just a little bit more per year adds up to not that little a bit more over time, and it’s not like that mercury goes away in the meantime. At the very least one has to carefully study the rates at which natural processes do pull out mercury and figure out the global related rates problem that leads to a given equilibrium.
This is not “just” to argue with Willis, BTW — I have the greatest respect for him even where we sometimes disagree — it is to insist that before we pillory the EPA for being bad scientists or economists, we have to pretty much redo the job we presume that they should have done, which involves months of work for somebody who knows what they are doing, even with the Internet and access to all the (paywalled or not) journals. More likely months of work for a team of scientists, engineers, physicians, economists. Willis has made an entirely valid point worthy of discussion in that process — is the measure cost-beneficial when total risk is accurately assessed? There are good reasons to think it is not. But there are also reasons to think that it might be, and am playing the Devil’s Advocate here because I think there is a tendency to minimize the risks because of a crossover on-list that interprets the measure as yet another way to backhandedly control CO_2 emissions. Maybe yes, maybe no, but not convincingly portrayed either way.
I know people who work at the EPA (which is just down the road 15 miles or so away) and they Are Not Stupid. Just FYI. Nor are they politically left wing to a human. They care about exactly the same things you are I might care about. If they are zealous about their job, it is somewhat justified, because businesses do make a mess of things, often, given a chance.

Gail Combs
April 1, 2012 11:24 am

Willis Eschenbach says:
March 31, 2012 at 2:05 pm
….So we’d expect a significant increase in the levels in the Lake Powell fish … but that hasn’t happened. They have about the same levels of mercury in their tissues that the fish had that were tested back in 1973 … go figure.
One of the things that seems to get forgotten is mankind did not make Mercury out of nothing. Mercury has always been present on earth.
Willis’ comment on the Lake Powell fish and Alec Rawls comment on the “hormesis effect” brings to mind the relatively new research that shows Copper is needed by goats to help reduce the internal parasite load.
I wonder if mercury in small quantities might have a similar effect in fish.

Hormetic Effects of Heavy Metals in Aquatic Snails: Is a Little Bit of Pollution Good?
…. We raised snails in outdoor mini-ecosystems containing lead, zinc, and cadmium-contaminated soil from an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in the Silver Valley of northern Idaho. The snails came from two sites. One population (Physella columbiana) has evolved for 120 years in the presence of heavy metals and one (Lymnaea palustris) has not. We found that P. columbiana exhibited hormesis with snails exposed to small amounts of metals exhibiting more reproduction and growth than snails not exposed to metals. Naturally occurring Oscillatoria algae also exhibited a hormetic effect of heavy metals but L. palustris did not display hormesis. Large doses negatively impacted all three species…..

An experiment with human cells:

Hormesis effect of trace metals on cultured normal and immortal human mammary cells
An in vitro study was conducted to determine the effects of variable concentrations of trace metals on human cultured mammary cells… human mortal (MCF-12A) and immortal (MDAMB231) mammary epithelial cells were incubated in the absence or presence of increasing concentrations of arsenic (As), mercury (Hg) and copper (Cu) The MTT assay was used to assess viability for all time periods and cell proliferation was monitored for 4-d and 7-d studies… The data suggest that there is a consistent protective and/or stimulating effect of metals at the lowest concentrations in MCF-12A cells that is not observed in immortal MDA-MB231 cells. In fact, cell viability of MCF-12A cells is stimulated by otherwise equivalent inhibitory concentrations of As, Cu, and Hg on MDA-MB231 cells at 24-h. Whereas As and Hg suppress proliferation and viability in both cell lines after 4-d and 7-d of exposure, Cu enhances cell proliferation and viability of MCF-12A cells. MDA-MB231, however, recover better after 4-days of toxic insult. In addition, nutritional manipulation of media between the cell lines, or pretreatment with penicillamine, did not alter the hormesis effect displayed by MCF- 12A. Growth of these cells however was not maintained in the alternative medium. The study demonstrates that a hormesis effect from trace metals is detectable in cultured mammary cells…..

[Formatting fixed -w.]

April 1, 2012 12:19 pm

You may be interested in these studies from Alaska documenting past levels of Hg in archeological sites. The point is current Hg levels in Alaskans subsisting on foods prior to industrialization are comparable to those measured today. Yes there is Hg in the environment, and background levels are broadly similar to those in the past. The data at present do not support that massive amounts of Hg pollution are impacting the health of humans dieting on fish and top-level predators in the Arctic.
Text below cited from Mercury Contamination in Alaska:A Compendium of Research, 2010.
Results from ancient remains are consistent and provide evidence that humans have
throughout the ages been exposed to naturally occurring mercury through fish and
marine mammals in their diets. (Arnold and Middaugh, 2004)
• In Barrow, total mercury in hair was 4.8 ppm in a 25 year-old and 1.2 ppm in a 50-yearold
mummy from a Barrow family frozen about 1460 A.D. (Toribara et al. 1984).
• The mean total mercury concentration in sixteen human hair samples from the Karluk
Archeological site (1170 A.D. to 1660 A.D.) in Kodiak, Alaska was 1.33 ppm and the
mean methylmercury concentration was considerably lower (0.03 ppm) (Egeland et al.
• Hair samples from 4 infants and 4 adults that radiocarbon dating established as
approximately 550 years old (1450 A.D.) showed average levels of methylmercury in
adults at 1.2 ppm and in infants 1.4 ppm. Segmental hair analysis showed patterns of
higher and lower methylmercury in centimeter segments, compatible with seasonal and
event specific changes in methylmercury exposure through a subsistence fish and marine
mammal diet. (Middaugh et al. 2002)

April 1, 2012 12:34 pm

Last night I pelted my city government building with a dozen squiggly (CFT) light bulbs. They make a cool sound when they break—everybody should try this. I will be cruising around on Monday to see if they clean them up properly. There is no mistaking the glass and where it comes from. I will be there to hold them to the EPA guidelines, you can all be sure of that! If they don’t comply, I will be pressing charges.
This was just done as a public service to test my government’s reaction. A citizen’s test, if you will.
I wonder. though, since that is our polling place, whether we voters will have to wear Orange Haz-Mat jumpers come election day. Time will tell!

Gail Combs
April 1, 2012 12:49 pm

March 31, 2012 at 3:30 pm
Dear Florian:
Don’t be naive. This EPA will propose greenhouse gas rules on existing power plants next. Then all hell will break loose when America gets the bill for that one.
And on top of that is the coming bill from the increase in food costs from the “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010” When we are faced with rampant hunger because of the regulatory, financial, trade and foreign policies of the past 100 or so years, those of us who have been crying from the roof tops for people to take an interest in what really sustains them may be very well justified in saying, “Let them eat grass.” Remember, No Farmers, No Food.
You can then add in Bernanke doubling the US money supply in just four months. That leads to inflation of prices while deflating wages. Hyper-inflation is the terminal stage of any fiat currency.

Hyperinflation in the USA, May 2010

[snipped: I’m sorry, Gail, but please don’t use a thread about mercury and the EPA to push your ideas about the US monetary system. They may be correct, but they are wildly off-topic. Thanks, -w.]

April 1, 2012 3:02 pm

What is the source of your Fig 2?

April 1, 2012 3:53 pm

Thanks Willis.

April 1, 2012 3:53 pm

Willis, how about a pie chart showing the emissions PER SQUARE KM? The oceans are huge, and on a normalized basis, they are actually relatively small contributors. Notice that the total emission from non-ocean natural sources are almost as great as the oceanic emissions, but the non-ocean area is less than half as big as the oceans.
Also, as other have suggested, the problem is mostly local. Thus, even if the emission per km^2 of land area are smaller for anthropogenic sources than for natural source, those emissions are concentrated, so a few areas will be MUCH higher than natural rates, while most areas will be pretty close to the natural rates.

April 1, 2012 4:50 pm

I am a biochemist with over 40 years experience in fields of metabolism, endocrinology, etc. I have come to understand that most metabolic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and others, are diseases of deficiency, not insult. Many agents, especially trace metals, have opposite, or contradictory effects depending on concentration. Selenium, Boron, Copper, Zinc—the list goes on. Even hydrogen sulfide, the most toxic gas (more than hydrogen cyanide) has trace function in metaqbolism. The immune system is an amazing system, that runs on the most part in response to thresholding. This means that above certain levels something happens to induce a new set point. There may be three or more separate concentration levels for the same compound whereupon other systems come into play (feedback loops). Homeostasis is the metabolic condition that the body, under the control of certain stimuli, seeks to achieve a constant overall state. Homeorhesis happens, in response to a new stimulus or set of conditions, in which the body achieves a new set point, and a new homeostatic condition results.
I would not be surprised at all, in my experience, if mercury is found to be an essential element at low levels. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The EPA is an arrogant bunch of sons-of-guns that pretend they are wise.

April 1, 2012 7:02 pm

1.) If you add up all of the EPA’s rules, it’s clear that they must save at least a planetful of people every single day! Then they have to destroy them so they’ll have a place to put the next batch.
2.) Haven’t we already had people who wanted to run the world in order to protect our precious and sacred bodily fluids? Doesn’t it seem like they had better clothes and better brains last time? Could the degeneration of our religious fanatics be a result of Mercury poisoning?

Charlie Dorian
April 1, 2012 9:42 pm

This paper ( offers some numbers relating to mercury and CFLs. Summarizing, 4 mg of Hg is a modern average for each CFL; it’s expected to go down to 1-1.4 mg; by 2007 manufacturers had routinely reached 2-3.5 mg per CFL. Of the 4 mg, 0.44 mg is released when the CFL is landfilled. The net emission benefit of a CFL is 4.2mg. A 13 W CFL lasts 8,000 hours. It is equivalent to 8 (1000 rated hours) 60 Watt incandescents. The CFL will save 376 KWh, avoiding 4.2 mg of power plant mercury emissions.

Charlie Dorian
April 1, 2012 9:46 pm

Sorry, last line should read: The CFL will save 376 KWh, avoiding 4.6 mg of power plant mercury emissions.

Geoff Sherrington
April 2, 2012 12:40 am

Robert Brown says: April 1, 2012 at 10:22 am Re mercury and lead are obviously toxins.
For lead, the jury is out. See the failure to answer
For mercury, my fun-filled handling days in the lab were 40 years ago, but since then I’ve been in many a mining gold room where amalgam has been used to separate the gold. I’ve also had original teeth with Hg amalgam fillings since I lost my milk teeth about 1946.
In my time as a chemist I have seen almost every chemical known to man to be domonised, to be described as having no safe lower dose, stories of marine food chain accumulation. In 1970 I measured the mercury in the hair of the people in my lab and it correlated nicely with age. So what?
Unfortunately, Robert Brown, you are a victim of an enormous chemophobic propaganda machine whose devious statements you are prepared to accept without confirmation. Well, I’ve done actual research into these matters, like my friends Allen Christophers and Pam de Silva did for lead, for 40 years.
Here is the 2010 version of the USA official list of substances known to cause cancer. Mercury or lead anywhere? If not, why not?
Analgesic Mixtures Containing Phenacetin
Arsenic Compounds, Inorganic
Benzidine (See Benzidine and Dyes Metabolized to Benzidine)
Beryllium and Beryllium Compounds
1,4-Butanediol Dimethanesulfonate (Myleran®)
Cadmium and Cadmium Compounds
1-(2-Chloroethyl)-3-(4-methylcyclohexyl)-1-nitrosourea (MeCCNU)
bis(Chloromethyl) Ether
Chromium Hexavalent Compounds
Coal Tar Pitches (See Coal Tars and Coal Tar Pitches)
Cyclosporin A
Estrogens, Steroidal
Ethylene Oxide
Methoxsalen with Ultraviolet A Therapy (PUVA)
Mineral Oils (Untreated and Mildly Treated)
Mustard Gas
Nickel Compounds (See Nickel Compounds and Metallic Nickel)
Radon (See Ionizing Radiation)
Silica, Crystalline (Respirable Size)
Strong Inorganic Acid Mists Containing Sulfuric Acid
2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD); “Dioxin”
Thiotepa 249
Vinyl Chloride
Wood Dust

April 2, 2012 3:57 am

Thanks for the link to the paper!
EPA made the assumption that 0.012 mg of mercury per kWh is emitted from US electricity generation. A made a study of this (see link on my name) and concluded that the emission was about 0.009 mg Hg per kWh. Clearly, there is a decreasing trend as a consequence of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). In 2006, coal-fired power plants emitted about 50 tons of mercury into the air. In 2010 the co-benefits of CAIR were estimated to reduce mercury emissions to 34.5 metric tonnes. The specific requirements of CAMR (the Clean Air Mercury Rule) will further reduce mercury emissions to 13.6 tonnes by 2020. (UNEP, Report presenting the costs and benefits for each of the strategic objectives. Addendum. 14 July 2008)
The trick of EPA is to use the old number of mercury emission in order to push up artificially the gains by CFLs.
Another trick is to minimize the mercury pollution in landfills. A recent collaborative study by
researchers at EPA and other environmental consulting firms estimated 10% of the mercury
contained in a fluorescent lamp is released as air emissions, 1% is released to water, and 89% is
held in soil (contained in landfills) (Cain et al. 2007).
As if by magic, 89% of the mercury content has disappeared! That the soil is contaminated with a mercury solution seems not be a problem for EPA. Other studies do not agree. However, when a CFL bulb breaks in a landfill, there is much less dissipation and bacteria convert metallic mercury into methyl-mercury which is 100 times more soluble in fat. (Commission Staff Working Document, Accompanying document to the Commission Regulation implementing Directive 2005/32/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council with regard to ecodesign requirement for non-directional household lamps, 18-3-2009, p.79)
Let us make the calculation again with the right numbers.
We compare a CFL 13W 8000 h (104 kWh use) with an incandescent 60W 8000 h (= 8 bulbs) (480 kWh use). Now we accept a national mercury emission of 0.009 mg/kWh and factor in 100% mercury from the lamps.
Hg emission from electricity use by the CFL: 0.94 mg (instead of 1.25 mg)
Hg emission from electricity use by the incandescent: 4.32 mg (instead of 5.76 mg).
Hg emissions from landfilling by the CFL: 4 mg (instead of 0.4 mg)
Total Hg (CFL): 4.94 mg (instead of 1.65 mg)
Total Hg (incandescent): 4.32 mg (instead of 5.76 mg)
Conclusion: Regarding the environmental impact, the incandescent lamp is a better choice than de CFL!
Assuming all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 are landfilled, they will contribute to supplementary mercury emission of 180 kg ((4.94 – 4.32 mg) * 290 million)! By banning all CFLs the emission of mercury would be reduced a lot. In future, by further reducing the mercury emission by power plants, the CFLs will become still more obsolete.

April 2, 2012 7:49 am

Great information. The comparison of anthropogenic to natural sources is particularly useful. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

Brian H
April 2, 2012 7:50 am

polistra says:
March 31, 2012 at 6:42 am
Mercury is a genuine and serious pollutant. If EPA would confine itself to controlling genuine and serious pollutants like this, I wouldn’t have any problem with them.

Ookay. But … wotif the pollution (= human contribution above b/g) is virtually indetectable noise in the natural environmental cycling? IMO that means that virtually EVERY cent spent on other than local on-site hotspot controls is wasted, and probably counter-productive on any sane CBA basis.

Crispin in Muizenberg
April 3, 2012 3:11 pm

“Fascinating, thanks for that, Crispin. Rather than some airborne biological factor that removes mercury from the air, my guess would be that there is a biological pump in the ocean that puts the mercury in the air in the first place … but that’s just a guess.”
I have discussed this with Prof Harold Annegarn of the Univ of Johannesburg who is an airborne particulate specialist and remote sensing guru. He has nothing to offer either. Prof Lodoysamba of the National University of Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar) was in attendance and was very interested in the finding. Both are nuclear physicists who have gone into particles and airborne pollution, with a good understanding of particle chemistry, and it is stumping them. Your second article offers nothing on this either. The assumption is the atmosphere is pretty constant. Maybe it is, over land.
As the data should be available on line perhaps someone can postulate how a seawater-based mechanism could vary the concentration based on the frequency and duration. If it is something in the water, it means the atmosphere holds onto the elemental mercury for only a matter of hours, at the most, at sea level – a very short cycle. Looks like something eats mercury.

April 16, 2012 12:02 am

Hahahaha Americans. Always putting business before health and the environment. The EPA must be evil. In fact, the EPA is so evil they could play a villain in the next Bond film. Here’s a plot for you: “James Bond is the only thing standing in the way between the EPA and the success of their plan to reduce the release of harmful substances into the environment.” Stop comparing yourselves to China and India. In those countries human life is cheap – meaning the Government does not care about the effects of hazardous substances released into the environment. If the US reaches the point of being like India and China, i.e. pursuing industry with zero regulation, then the US will truly be a third world country – putting the interests of big business before the health of the individual. For a country that makes a big deal out of its constitution and indivdual liberty, it sure has no problem stepping on those individual liberties where a corporation believes money is to be made or saved. Just look at groundwater contamination in the pursuit of natural gas. Time to wake up USA. Stop comparing the dangerous and unethical business practices of third world countries to your own practices and crying poor. It’s funny how US pundits talk about China and India having greater industrial freedoms to release greenhouse gasses as unfair, and yet the same pundits completely ignore the record graduation levels in science and engineering in the same countries. It seems that the only time pundits are upset with their own country is when their neighbour is busy destroying their environment, but when China and India are graduating more Phds than the US the pundits are nowhere to be heard. Lobbyists and big business are lining the pockets of your talking heads and opinion makers, whose only allegiance is their network executives and their own bank account. God help us all.

%d bloggers like this: