New Jersey Ignores Science on Mercury

Published April 1, 2005

A report released February 16 by the Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives shows mercury fears are largely overstated by environmental activist groups. Nevertheless, New Jersey government officials have opted to ignore the evidence and are imposing increasingly severe restrictions on mercury.

On February 14 the New Jersey Senate passed a bill requiring automakers to pay recyclers a fee for every mercury switch–commonly used to light glove compartments, trunks, and vanity mirrors–that recyclers recover. The fee is designed to encourage recyclers to ferret out the mercury in such switches before melting down the vehicle into recyclable metal.

Tough Restrictions

The legislation follows restrictions imposed last November 4 when New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell announced the adoption of new rules establishing the strongest mercury and arsenic standards in the nation.

According to a DEP news release, the November 4 regulations will require the following mercury emission reductions:

  • from the state’s 10 coal-fired boilers in power plants, a 90 percent reduction from current levels by the end of 2007. Plants may defer meeting the standard until 2012 if they also make major reductions in their emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulates;
  • from the state’s six iron and steel melters, a 75 percent reduction from current levels by year-end 2009; and
  • from the state’s five municipal solid waste incinerators, a 95 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2011.

Mercury Not a Threat

Several recent studies have shown there is no need for mercury emission restrictions like those adopted by New Jersey.

In the new government report, Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury, House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo (R-CA) and House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chair Jim Gibbons (R-NV) summarize several studies showing that current levels of environmental mercury pose little or no threat to humans.

“The most current peer-reviewed science does not support conclusions that the U.S. population is at risk from the trace amounts of mercury found in fish,” notes the report.

“After an exhaustive review of the science surrounding the mercury debate, it is clear that some special-interest groups are crying wolf,” said Pombo in an accompanying news release. “Most strikingly, the conclusions drawn in this paper are not drawn by us, but rather by a vast number of scientific and government studies. We have simply highlighted, in documented fashion, the most important bodies of evidence on this subject.

“It is clear that research must be continued, and it is very clear that the current knowledge does not support the rhetorical campaigns of special-interest groups,” Pombo stated.

Nearly All Mercury Natural

Even if environmental mercury were a problem, further restrictions on U.S. manmade mercury emissions would be of little value, the report notes. Sixty-one percent of environmental mercury comes from natural sources. Only 2 percent of environmental mercury comes from U.S. man-made emissions. A substantial share of environmental mercury in the U.S. comes from Chinese emissions that cross the Pacific Ocean and settle in North America.

Geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park emit as much mercury as all of Wyoming’s eight coal-fired power plants combined. Even so, notes the House study, “the presence of mercury in Yellowstone National Park and Lake were said to pose no danger to park rangers, visitors, and even its wildlife. Native grizzly bears who consume up to 400 pounds of cutthroat trout have exhibited no ill effects, according to researchers.”

Most human and animal exposure to environmental mercury occurs through the consumption of fish. Methylmercury enters the food chain through microorganisms eaten by fish and other aquatic life.

U.S. Mercury Levels Falling

The House Resources Committee report also notes:

  • U.S. power plants account for less than 1 percent of global mercury emissions;
  • mercury emissions in the United States have fallen significantly since 1990;
  • mercury levels in ocean fish have remained the same or have fallen slightly since 1990;
  • current scientific literature does not show a direct link between U.S. power plants and mercury in fish;
  • there has been no credible evidence of harm to pregnant women or their unborn children from the consumption of a variety of ocean-going fish; and
  • research has consistently proven the health benefits of regular fish consumption.

New CEI Study Agrees

The House report follows on the heels of a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) study released December 15, which concludes “there is no evidence that the levels of methylmercury in the fish Americans consume are cause for any health concern.”

“Agencies and activist groups have issued these unfounded advisories based on tenuous risk portrayals,” said Sandy Szwarc, author of the CEI study.

“In today’s pursuit of absolute assurances of safety,” Szwarc continued, “exceedingly precautionary and arbitrary safety cushions have been set at levels many times higher than those where any actual risk has been detected. But the public is being misled into believing that exposure to mercury levels at or near those extreme precautionary safety thresholds represents actual danger.”

New Jersey Ignoring Science

Passage of the New Jersey automobile recycling bill brought praise from Kevin Mills, Clean Car Campaign director for the environmental activist group Environmental Defense. “New Jerseyans couldn’t have asked for a better gift this Valentine’s Day,” said Mills in a February 14 news release. “This program provides automakers with a cost-effective solution to rectify a dangerous design choice.”

“Governments have seized upon groundless fears and enacted pernicious regulations to address a nonexistent problem,” countered Szwarc. “When politics usurps science and sound risk assessments, consumers lose.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

The February 16 report of the U.S. House of Representatives Resources Committee, Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury, is available online at

The December 14 Competitive Enterprise Institute Issue Analysis by Sandy Szwarc, “Fishy Advice: The Politics of Methylmercury in Fish and Mercury Emissions,” is available online at,04330.cfm.