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Administrator of EPA New England Calls on New England Communities to Ban Mercury

Release Date: 11/30/2000
Contact Information: Amy Miller, EPA Press Office (617-918-1042)

BOSTON - Mindy S. Lubber, Regional Administrator of EPA New England, today called on municipalities across New England to ban the retail sales of mercury fever thermometers, an action taken this month by the city of Boston.

In a letters sent to municipal leaders, Lubber wrote, "The ban approved by the Boston City Council and signed by Mayor Thomas Menino will help significantly to reduce the amount of mercury that is contaminating our environment."

The Boston City Council voted unanimously on Nov. 15 to ban the sale and distribution of all mercury fever thermometers in the city and Mayor Menino subsequently signed the bill into law. The ban takes effect in six months.

EPA New England and Health Care Without Harm, an international health-related organization that pushed to pass the legislation in Boston, will work together to educate every community in the state on the dangers of mercury in the environment and the importance of eliminating these thermometers from the waste stream.

In New England, 83 percent of the rivers, lakes and streams are so polluted with mercury that residents must limit the consumption of freshwater fish caught in them. All six New England states have fish advisories in place due to mercury contamination.

"Not enough people are aware of these advisories, especially pregnant women who can unwittingly cause irreversible neurological problems for their children by consuming mercury-contaminated fish," Lubber said. "Widespread exposure to mercury is one of the most serious environmental health risks in New England, but it is a problem that we can all play a part in solving."

"This is an important step in protecting the environment and the public health of the people of Boston and New England," said Boston City Councillor Francis "Mickey" Roache, sponsor of the legislation. "It makes sense that Boston, with its reputation for leadership in these areas, moves towards eliminating harmful mercury from the environment."

"This is a tremendous opportunity for other New England municipalities to join the growing chorus of concerned government officials that want to get the mercury out of the environment, out of the fish, and out of our children's bodies," said Gary Cohen of Health Care Without Harm. "The Boston ordinance has sent a signal to other cities in the region and will empower other city councils and state governments to follow the lead."

Although Boston passed New England's first city-wide ban on the sale of mercury fever thermometers, the entire state of New Hampshire already has a state-wide ban and many communities across the country are adopting similar legislation to prevent mercury pollution. Lubber sent letters to officials in all the towns and cities in the other five New England states. The cities of Duluth, Minn., DeForest and Stoughton, Wisc., and Ann Arbor Mich., and the counties of San Francisco, Calif., and Dane, Wisc. already have mercury thermometer bans in place.

Mercury is a highly toxic, naturally occurring metal that moves between water, air and soil as a result of natural and human activities. It can damage the neurological development of children who are exposed by eating contaminated fish, as well as fetuses who are exposed through their mother's consumption of contaminated fish. Removing mercury fever thermometers and other mercury-containing equipment from the health care industry waste stream is one of the most effective methods of reducing the amount of mercury in the environment.

When a mercury thermometer breaks in the home, it immediately begins to evaporate, potentially reaching dangerous levels in indoor air. In the year 2000, 17 tons of mercury from thermometers alone will be disposed as municipal waste, and in many cases will be incinerated and end up in the food chain. Mercury makes its way into the food chain when it is deposited in lakes and fish eat it. Very small amounts of mercury can cause significant damage. One gram of mercury per year, the amount in a single thermometer, is enough to contaminate all the fish in a lake with surface area of 20 acres.

The six New England governors and premiers from all five Eastern Canada provinces, working with the EPA, adopted a Mercury Action Plan in 1998 that aims to cut mercury emissions in half by the year 2003 and eventually to eliminate mercury in the waste stream. Largely as a result of this agreement, all four New England states that have large waste incinerators -- New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts -- have passed legislation that is more stringent than what EPA requires. This legislation significantly lowers the amount of mercury emissions allowed by large municipal incinerators.

Nationally, the largest source of mercury emissions is from combustion of fuels, and most often coal. In New England, about half the emissions are from medical waste and municipal incinerators because of all the thermometers, light bulbs, blood pressure units and countless other products thrown away. EPA standards already in place will reduce national emissions from municipal incineration by as much as 90 percent by the year 2002, compared to 1995 levels.

EPA New England's efforts to reduce mercury emissions include a Partners for Change Mercury Challenge program, which is working with the region's hospitals to reduce mercury waste entirely by 2003. Thirteen New England hospitals, including nine in Massachusetts, have joined the program and eliminated 600 pounds of mercury from their waste streams.

This fall EPA New England sent letters to all 276 hospitals in New England, encouraging them to sign up for this voluntary program. We expect to double and, possibly triple, participation through this effort. The Partners for Change Mercury Challenge promotes voluntary, measurable mercury reductions at medical facilities. Medical facilities commit to meeting their own mercury reduction goals and agree to make good faith voluntary effort to put prevention measures in place.