|Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil. It is a persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic pollutant that exists in several different forms impacting individuals through various routes of exposure. Human and industrial activities, including those that use mercury directly or burn mercury bearing fossil fuels like coal, have increased the amount of mercury deposited in the environment. Once mercury is released into the atmosphere, it can deposit to waterbodies, be converted to methylmercury and then bioaccumulate in fish. Methylmercury (organic mercury) is the compound of highest concern for human and wildlife exposure. Studies indicate an increased risk to a developing fetus upon exposure to methylmercury via maternal fish consumption. Elemental mercury is a heavy, silvery-white metal, which is liquid at ordinary temperatures and used in many man-made products (thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, etc.). At room temperature, elemental mercury evaporates to become an invisible, odorless and toxic vapor. The hazardous route of exposure is inhalation of mercury vapor which is often associated with the inadequate cleanup of broken mercury-containing products.
Mercury Pollution Prevention
Pollution Prevention (P2) is the elimination and/or reduction in the generation of waste at its source. Numerous mercury P2 activities have taken place throughout Michigan over the past 15 years. The Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA) has taken the lead to provide non-regulatory assistance to businesses, institutions and the public to improve mercury reduction through P2 by developing educational outreach materials, assisting in Michigan legislation limiting mercury use, and through its voluntary partnership programs . For example, removing mercury from mercury-containing devices before they are landfilled prevents releases to air or groundwater. However, once the mercury is removed, it must be properly managed to prevent further releases to land, water, or air. These types of measures lessen the volume or toxicity of mercury waste, as well as the application of source reduction techniques resulting in the use of fewer mercury products and, therefore, less potential for mercury releases to the environment. The most effective P2 technique has been ‘product substitution', where mercury-containing devices or products are replaced by safer mercury-free alternatives. Historically the OEA has provided a valuable support function by assisting other division’s integration of P2 into permits and Supplemental Environmental Projects.
Mercury In Air
The Air Quality Division (AQD) oversees the protection of Michigan's air quality through ambient monitoring, permitting, and the development of air pollution control laws and rules. In addition, the AQD's Toxics Unit evaluates the human health impacts of mercury and other toxic air pollutants, and develops, coordinates, and implements the Air Toxics Program for the protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem and inland lakes. The AQD has also been instrumental in putting together several workgroups that address mercury issues. The Michigan's Mercury Electric Utility Workgroup was charged to develop a Michigan emissions reduction strategy for coal-fire.
Mercury in Water
The Water Resources Division (WRD) oversees the protection for Michigan's water programs through the development of water quality standards and permitting activities, such as the Mercury Permitting Strategy. The WRD also does water quality monitoring of sediments, water chemistry, aquatic life, and wildlife contaminant studies. Under the Fish Contaminant Monitoring Program , edible portion fish contaminant data is used by the Michigan Department of Community Health to develop the Michigan Fish Advisory , whole fish data are used to track contaminant trends, and caged fish data are used to identify sources of pollutants and evaluate spatial trends of contaminant concentrations. These types of sampling ensure the viability of Michigan's aquatic ecosystems, that water quality standards are being met and that surface waters meet designated uses. In addition, the WRD provides technical assistance and project oversight on sediment remediation projects, often involving mercury contamination.
Mercury in Waste
The Office of Waste Management and Radiological Protection (OWMRP) administers a diverse number of programs through the regulation of solid, liquid, medical, and hazardous waste. Mercury is classified as a hazardous waste constituent regulated under the Hazardous Waste Rules, which identifies and imposes management standards on generators, transporters and treatment, storage and disposal facilities managing hazardous waste in Michigan. Universal wastes are specific types of hazardous waste (including some mercury-containing wastes) generated by manufacturing industries, businesses, agencies, hospitals, and other waste generators, who have chosen to handle these items in accordance with the Universal Waste Regulations . Mercury and mercury-containing items derived from households are regulated as a solid waste. Disposal of household generated mercury-containing wastes in landfills is currently not prohibited. As an alternative to landfill disposal, there are pollution prevention programs that provide safe and effective disposal of mercury and mercury-containing items.
Mercury releases may have occurred from historical manufacturing operations in Michigan and may continue to leach to groundwater or surface water from historical manufacturing or disposal practices, or result from chemical or biological process involved in contaminant natural attenuation process. Releases of mercury from sites of environmental contamination are considered mercury legacy sites and are addressed by the state Mercury Clean-up Standards. The Remediation and Redevelopment Division (RRD) administers programs that involve the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated properties to achieve a healthier, cleaner, and more productive environment for Michigan's citizens. The primary legislative authority for the state cleanup program is Part 201 and any area where contamination exceeds the state clean-up criteria can be found in the Inventory of Facilities.
Mercury and Your Health
The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) notes that fish are a great source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, are low in saturated fat, and can help prevent heart disease in adults. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are also good for brain development in fetuses, breast-fed babies, and children. However, some fish contain toxic chemicals including mercury, PCBs and dioxin. The Michigan Fish Advisory, developed by the MDCH, helps you find safer fish to eat and identifies which fish species have been tested. Additional information about catching safe fish in Michigan, along with advice about store-bought and restaurant fish can be found on the MDCH Eat Safe Fish website
The MDCH has rules requiring clinical laboratories to report all clinical test results of mercury in blood and urine. Like other public health surveillance systems, this reporting requirement includes collection of sufficient information about tested individuals and their health care providers to conduct follow-up to identify the source of exposure, which then triggers public health actions to mitigate exposures to others, if appropriate.
MDCH also provides training, guidance and assistance relating to mercury spill clean-up. You can learn about keeping yourself, your family and your pets safe from mercury at Mercury Spills in Homes.