Volume 86 Issue 40 | p. 11 | News of The Week
Issue Date: October 6, 2008

Taking A Bite Out Of Mercury Trade

U.S., EU will halt exports of commodity quicksilver
Department: Government & Policy
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The new export bans are aimed at stopping the flow of elemental mercury to small-scale gold miners in the developing world, such as these in Laos.
Credit: United Nations Industrial Development Organization
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The new export bans are aimed at stopping the flow of elemental mercury to small-scale gold miners in the developing world, such as these in Laos.
Credit: United Nations Industrial Development Organization

THE U.S. and the European Union will put a substantial dent in the world's supply of commodity mercury by halting their exports of the neurotoxic metal.

In independent actions taken in late September, the EU adopted a mercury export ban that takes effect in 2011, while Congress passed legislation to halt U.S. exports of the metal in 2013.

The U.S. and the EU are among the top exporters of commodity quicksilver. Between 40 and 50% of the estimated 3,800 metric tons of annual global trade in mercury passes through the EU and the U.S., according to Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project, an environmental group.

Neither the U.S. nor the EU mines quicksilver anymore. Instead, most of their supplies of the metal come from the recycling of fluorescent light bulbs and equipment such as thermometers, as well as decommissioned mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants. Commodity brokers purchase excess mercury and sell it on the world market.

The United Nations is concerned that mercury exports from the industrialized world, which is phasing out use of this element, end up in and on the hands of small-scale gold miners, who use mercury to separate gold from sand. Air and water around gold-mining sites are contaminated with mercury. Airborne mercury can travel long distances and can wind up in waterways, contaminating fish that end up on dinner tables the world over.

The U.S. export ban legislation, S. 906, requires the Department of Energy to establish by 2010 a long-term storage facility for excess commercial mercury. Lawmakers crafted this provision in consultation with three industry groups—the American Chemistry Council, the Chlorine Institute, and the National Mining Association—as well as the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council and a coalition of top state environmental regulators.

The legislation also prohibits DOE and the U.S. military from selling or otherwise transferring their large stockpiles of mercury, which are Cold War leftovers.

As of C&EN's deadline, the White House had not indicated whether President George W. Bush will sign the legislation.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

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