Hey Mr. Green,
Since we have been using mercury-containing fluorescents since the 1940s, the relevant question would seem to be whether it's easier to contain mercury released from a power plant or in our solid-waste stream? —Jerry in Jamaica, New York
Mr. Green answers:
Yes, if done strictly, controlling emissions from power plants would clearly be the most effective way to bring about a large reduction in the amount of toxic mercury in our air and water. Around 48 tons of mercury are emitted each year from power plants in the United States. The EPA has announced a goal of cutting this down to 15 tons by 2018. However, the agency's plan involves a cap-and-trade system critics say will actually not reduce mercury in some areas at all, and almost two dozen states are working to pass their own stricter regulations.
Total human-caused mercury emissions in the United States have declined considerably, thanks to stiff regulations and changing technology. We're now emitting around 115 tons total annually, down from 220 tons in 1990. Emissions peaked at twice this level in the 1950s, when they were ten times higher than in the 19th century.
This is all very good news, the kind of news environmentalists ought to crow about more. (Seems to me that we sometimes get so caught up in dealing with new messes that we don't demand enough credit for cleaning up the old ones.) But we do have a problem with compact fluorescent lightbulbs, because no mercury is good mercury. What we need, in my opinion, is much clearer point-of-sale information and more-prominent information on bulb packaging about the dangers of mercury and the importance of recycling.
As I've noted before, if all home lighting used in the United States were fluorescent, the mercury in dead bulbs would add up to around four tons a year. (Of course, the enviros-are-sissies dudes are in such denial about environmental problems they'll tell you that's such a small part of the total it's not worth worrying about--then down a shot of mercury with a DDT chaser to prove their point.) But because a lot of total mercury emissions are made up of just such "small" parts--3.5 percent from cement plants, 4.5 percent from hazardous-waste incineration, etc.--we neglect any part at our cumulative peril.
Finally, although we know what a major environmental nuisance the United States is--the classic example being that with 5 percent of the world's population, we burn 25 percent of the world's oil--we're far less reckless with mercury, emitting about 2 to 3 percent of the world's whopping total of 4,400 to 7,500 tons a year. Unfortunately, this can't be dismissed as somebody else's issue, because mercury vapor and compounds can drift thousands of miles in the atmosphere. So when we buy imported goods made in countries with lax emissions standards, we might be poisoning ourselves and the unfortunate residents of those nations. Plus, when we ship tons of our worn-out, mercury-containing products overseas for recycling, we're offshoring pollution along with jobs. It's clear that the whole world needs strict limits on mercury.