A rock and a hard place: Mercury pollution from common household products

Bleached toilet paper contains mercury.This is a rather instructive story, I think:

Since the angelically named Clear Skies Act of 2003 was enacted, mercury levels in bodies of water in Lincoln County, Maine have risen steadily. So, in fact, have mercury levels in bodies of water around the country. The act "weakens controls on mercury pollution levels" and has resulted in increasing numbers of fish consumption warnings and the many other problems that go along with heightened methylmercury levels -- including, for the unfortunate loon population, reproductive and development problems. Lack of restriction on coal plants has played a large role in the increase in mercury pollution, and nine states filed a lawsuit against the EPA to that effect.

Meanwhile, according to an employee of the Association of Metropolitan Sewage Agencies (AMSA) as reported to The Lincoln County News:

"There's an effluent limit for our wastewater plant for mercury, and it's 20.9 parts per trillion," said Bowers, "and it's amazing to look at the AMSA's mercury concentration list of toiletries, common household and food products and find Kool-Aid Mountain Twists has 6,070 ng/kg (nanograms/kilograms) or 6,070 parts per trillion of mercury."

Kool-Aid Mountain Twists aren't the only household item containing mercury, either. Specific brands of toothpaste, soap, bathroom tissue and dishwasher gel also make AMSA's watchlist (note how the remnants of all of those products end up right back in the wastewater). It's not that mercury is included as an ingredient. It's that the process for manufacturing those particular goods uses mercury, and trace amounts remain when the product is finished. Larger amounts of mercury are found in household bleach and many soaps.

It's not as a direct threat to human health that these trace levels become a problem, although I admit I'm not pleased to think of any amount of exposure to toxic mercury. The real problem is when those trace amounts make it back into wastewater effluent, where mercury is metabolized by bacteria into bio-accumulative methylmercury. That's the stuff that builds up in bodies as it goes up the food chain, so by the time it gets to the fish you and I eat it's a big issue.

All of which leaves us precisely here: Railing against mercury contamination from coal plants while flushing more mercury into the environment. Wonderful.

So, what can we do?

  1. Don't get scared. Get angry. There's a temptation, when we find out about a source of pollution in our own homes, to get nervous. I know, because it was my immediate reaction. But even though parts-per-trillion levels of mercury ideally shouldn't be in our toilet paper, they don't pose an immediate health risk to us. As for risks to the environment -- well, that may be a different story.
  2. As much as possible, eliminate regular chlorine bleach from use in your household, since it tends to contain greater trace levels of mercury.
  3. Watch what you flush. Many other cleaning agents contain measurable levels of mercury, as well, so when you use a whole lot of them to clean the toilet or the tub you're flushing mercury (not to mention money!) down the drain.
  4. Buy "unbleached" paper products (toilet paper, paper towels, feminine hygiene products, etc.) whenever you can. Not only does this prevent you from flushing more mercury into the environment, it sends a message to manufacturers that we want cleaner products. Since the manufacture of the products releases more mercury than our use of them, having less manufactured would be a big step.
  5. Don't forget about the coal companies! The amount of mercury pollution they're contributing to the environment is far greater than the cumulative effect of your households' and mine. Add to that their CO2 emissions and you've got one dirty industry. It's time to find a better way to fuel our lives.
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