The Minamata Convention: Can We Make Mercury History?

This post was originally published on Envirobites.org

Last month, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health released a striking report estimating that pollution caused 9 million deaths worldwide in 2015 – 3 times more deaths than caused by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. Air pollution was responsible for the vast majority of these deaths, but water and chemical pollution also contributed substantial burdens.

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Global estimated deaths by major risk factor and cause, 2015; The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health (2017)

One of the chemical pollutants highlighted by the Lancet Commission is mercury, a known neurotoxicant. The report discusses the dangers of mercury when used specifically in small-scale gold mining in low-income countries, yet populations across the world can also be exposed through fish consumption or consumer products, among other sources.

Well before the new Lancet report was released, the international community had recognized the dangers of mercury and had been working to develop policies to minimize exposure to this pollutant. In fact, on August 16, 2017, after sixteen years of work and negotiations, the Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force.

This global treaty aims to protect human health and the environment from the toxic effects of mercury through restriction of mercury products and processes. It is the first new international convention in almost 10 years focused specifically on health and the environment. (Other previous treaties include the Basel Convention for hazardous waste, the Rotterdam Convention for pesticides and industrial chemicals, and the Stockholm Convention for highly persistent global pollutants).

The convention is named after the decades-long environmental health tragedy in Minamata, Japan. Residents and animals in this area developed severe neurological syndromes after eating seafood that had been highly contaminated with mercury from industrial pollution.

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrjoro/42550809/

Why Mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal, and certain chemical forms (specifically, methylmercury and metallic mercury vapor) are highly toxic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of public health concern. The nervous system – and in particular, the developing brain – is highly vulnerable to mercury. Exposure can result in permanent neurological damage. (Remember the Mad Hatter from Alice In Wonderland?) Other organ systems, such as the lungs, kidneys, and immune systems, may also be affected. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has stated that there is no safe level of mercury exposure.

How Are We Exposed Today?

Mercury is emitted through both natural and industrial processes. Examples of natural processes that release mercury include rock weathering, forest fires, and volcanic eruptions.

However, this global treaty targets mercury from industrial and human processes. These include coal burning, waste incineration, consumer products, and small-scale gold mining. Because mercury emissions travel through air and water without regard to political borders, only an international treaty could truly be effective in addressing this pollutant.

Human exposure to mercury occurs through several possible routes, including consumption of contaminated fish, inhalation of mercury vapors from the air, or even from the use of mercury in dental fillings.

Convention Commitments

The 84 countries that have already ratified the treaty (and the many other countries anticipated to fully join in the near future) will be required to take the following steps by 2020:

  • Phase-out or reduce mercury from products such as batteries, certain light bulbs, cosmetics, and pesticides
  • Control mercury air emissions from coal-fired power plants, waste incineration, and related industrial processes
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of mercury in chemical manufacturing processes

The convention also provides guidance for safe storage of mercury, waste disposal, and contaminated sites.

Threats to U.S. Progress and Compliance

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aims to address mercury pollution through numerous programs and regulations. But now, some of those efforts are under attack or subject to delay – threatening our prospects for reducing mercury exposure and complying with the convention.

For example, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule, passed under the Obama administration, limits the amount of mercury released from coal-fired power plants. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had planned to review the cost-benefit analysis for this regulation but recently decided to delay the case instead. The Trump administration may actually decide to repeal the regulation altogether rather than defend the rule in court.

The administration’s vocal support for revitalizing the coal industry and the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan would further reverse progress that we have made in reducing mercury emissions. Recent shifts away from coal in this country have led to decreased mercury emissions and declining mercury contamination in tuna – historically, a significant exposure route for the population.

The current administration may also review a 2015 rule that set standards for disposal of coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion. Improper disposal of coal ash in landfills can result in release of mercury, among other toxic chemicals.

These steps are hugely disappointing. Tackling this global pollution problem requires global action, and therefore the U.S. must continue to take strong steps to reduce mercury use and releases.

During these tumultuous times in particular, the ratification of this global treaty is an important victory for human health and the environment – and a reminder that we can still come together to make progress towards global health and sustainability. But, the realization of these goals requires political will and cooperation from all parties, and only time will tell if they can follow through on these targets.

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Getting the lead out of our skies

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dsiegel.deviantart.com

This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Steven Gilbert and originally posted in Environmental Health News. 

The excitement of watching sea planes take off and land from Lake Union, Seattle belies their hidden danger: leaded gasoline.

While lead was removed from automobile and other transportation gasoline more than two decades ago, it’s still used in aviation gasoline, or “avgas,” to prevent knocking in over 167,000 piston-engine aircrafts around the country. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), avgas is the single largest source of lead emissions in the country. Avgas released during flight has the potential to disperse lead widely in the environment, contaminating water bodies, soil near the air fields, and farms.

Lead is a well-known neurotoxicant, and children are particularly vulnerable to its devastating and irreversible impacts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no safe level of blood lead in children. The EPA estimates that approximately 16 million people, including 3 million children, live or attend school within one mile of airports using leaded avgas. Researchers have found that children living close to airports with planes using avgas have higher blood lead levels than children living farther from those airports. Workers who service or refuel the aircrafts may also be exposed.

There are alternatives to avgas, and it is estimated that about 80 percent of the current piston fleet across the country could operate safely on these fuels without retrofitting. Europe already implemented policies to promote the use of unleaded alternatives. Yet, without regulatory updates in the U.S., there is little incentive for industries to change or for airports to provide alternatives.

What is the roadblock to these policy changes? To regulate lead under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must make an “endangerment finding” that documents the hazard of lead released from aviation gasoline. Despite petitions from multiple advocacy groups, however, the EPA has declined to make this determination and has insisted on the need for more data.

In the meantime, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) formed the Piston Aviation Fuel Initiative, a collaboration between FAA and industry to spur the development of additional avgas substitutes by 2018. Whether this effort delivers on its promise remains to be seen. And even if a replacement is “certified,” the FAA estimated that a complete phase out of leaded fuel could take 11 years.

To spur changes in the absence of efficient federal progress, action at the state and local levels is needed. For example, requiring airports to provide unleaded gasoline or adopting taxes on leaded gasoline to promote use of alternatives. Revenue generated could be used for soil lead testing or remediation at homes, schools, and parks near airports using leaded gasoline. We urge local policymakers to consider such initiatives in the coming legislative sessions.

recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts calculated that removing lead from aviation fuel would prevent a 5.7 percent increase in child blood lead across the country and result in $262 million in gross future benefits.

Given the known hazards of lead exposure and the existence of alternative aviation fuels, we have an ethical responsibility to eliminate the use of avgas and protect our population from such a significant source of lead pollution.

How the U.S. is taking the lead to prevent lead poisoning

This piece was first published on the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science (IAPHS) blog. You can see the original posting here.  

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, returned our attention to a problem that we would have preferred to believe was behind us: lead poisoning. This incident highlighted the dangers of lead-lined water pipes; but, unfortunately, there are numerous other sources of lead exposure throughout the United States. I’ve written previously about risks from contact with contaminated soil or through the workplace. Lead-based paint, outdoor air, and manufactured products also pose risks. Because of these diverse sources, eliminating lead poisoning is challenging and requires coordination across multiple programs and policies.

Understanding this complex need—and perhaps sensing the increased public concern regarding lead in the United States—the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children recently released a report entitled “Key Federal Programs to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures and Eliminate Associated Health Impacts.” This report describes the dozens of federal regulations and programs that have been established to address lead exposures in children. It also marks progress towards the development of an enhanced lead strategy that will address existing policy gaps.

The report is worth a read; you may be surprised by the number of existing policies and efforts aimed at mitigating lead exposure. There are almost 60 programs and activities administered by nine agencies and close to 30 specific regulations that address lead exposures, directly or indirectly, in children. Some of these programs and regulations include:

Together, all of these efforts have contributed to the impressive decline in blood lead levels in this country, as illustrated in the figure below.

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Despite this progress, significant challenges remain. Exposure to lead occurs disproportionately in minority and low-income families, and future work should focus on mitigating this disparity. As prescribed by Executive Order 12898, environmental justice must be a core component of agency activities.

To meet these environmental justice goals and continue to reduce lead exposure across the country, continued funding of these programs is essential. This report demonstrates that eliminating lead hazards requires parallel efforts and synergies between nine different government agencies—from the EPA to HUD, and the Department of Education to the Department of Transportation. Therefore, in the coming years, we must ensure that these agencies continue to receive the resources to be able to adequately address this critical public health issue. Call or write your representatives to voice your thoughts on the importance of protecting funding for public health agencies.

We have come so far in addressing lead in this country; let’s make sure we can finish the job completely.

Lead exposure beyond Flint—protecting our nation’s workers

This commentary was published in the September 12, 2016 edition of Environmental Health News‘ Above the Fold. To view the original version, click here: http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2016/sept/commentary-lead-exposure-beyond-flint2014protecting-our-nation2019s-workers 

By Rachel Shaffer and Steven Gilbert
Environmental Health News

Lead poisoning returned to the national consciousness this year through the tragic events in Flint, Michigan, but drinking water is only one of many exposure routes. Because of outdated federal workplace safety standards, acute and chronic occupational lead exposure occurs all too often and can harm workers and their children, who may be exposed prenatally or through lead dust carried into the home. We need to protect workers and their families by updating federal workplace lead standards based on the latest scientific research.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates workplace lead exposure at the national level through two standards, the general industry standard and the construction industry standard. Both of these standards are severely outdated, based on information available in the 1970s instead of the latest scientific and medical evidence.

Image adapted from CDC/NIOSH

Thus, while OSHA’s mandate is to “assure so far as possible every working man and women in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions,” these goals have not been met for workplace lead exposure.

Under the existing regulations, workers can be exposed to levels of lead that result in 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood before medical removal is required, and they can return to work after their blood lead levels are as high as 40 micrograms per deciliter.

As comparison, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter as “elevated” and has set a “Healthy People 2020” national public health goal that aims to reduce the proportion of workers with blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Exposure to levels of lead much lower than what is allowable under OSHA’s current standards have been linked to high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, reproductive effects and neurological impairments.

In industries with high potential for lead exposure, such as construction, gun ranges, and battery reclaiming/manufacturing, not only are workers at risk, but their families may also be exposed inadvertently through take-home lead dust.

Children’s developing nervous systems are particularly vulnerable, and lead exposure can result in intellectual impairment. Stricter standards that require lower workplace lead levels and better personal protection will substantially reduce the dangers associated with take-home lead exposures.

In addition, since lead released from bones during pregnancy easily crosses the placenta, children born to lead-exposed workers are at risk for neurodevelopmental and other adverse health effects. Better standards will reduce potential fetal lead exposure in female workers of childbearing age.

Both California and Washington State are in the process of updating their own occupational lead standards. But, why should workers in only two states be privileged to improved health protections? OSHA standards, which cover all workers across the country, should also be strengthened to adequately protect workers and their families.

In the interim, though, enforcement of company compliance with existing federal regulations is also critical. A recent blog post from the U.S. Department of Labor described a case in which OSHA officials responded to worker complaints and cited a Wisconsin shipyard operator with 19 willful violations of the lead standard after detecting elevated blood lead levels in 75 percent of employees tested.

OSHA regulates workplace lead exposure at the national level through two standards. Both of these standards are severely outdated.The incident illustrates the importance of maintaining a well-funded OSHA ensuring it has the resources to monitor adherence to the standards. However, a draft bill for fiscal year 2017 suggests that OSHA’s budget would be cut significantly, which may prevent these enforcement activities and thus put workers at further risk.

We have the scientific and medical evidence that documents the harms of elevated blood lead levels, and we have the technology to reduce occupational lead exposure.

Now it is time to take action to put elevated workplace lead exposure behind us by rapidly adopting a standard that is aligned with CDC’s existing public health guidance, which classifies blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter as elevated.

We must strengthen OSHA standards for lead and provide sufficient support for the agency’s enforcement actions. The health of our workers – and their children – depends on it.

Outdated lead standards put Washington workers, families at risk

This op-ed originally appeared in the August 1, 2016 print edition of the Seattle Times. See here for the online posting: http://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/outdated-lead-standards-put-washington-workers-families-at-risk/ 

 

FGGM_Pb5Image credit:  https://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/phcrspecific/north/Pages/IHD.aspx

By Rachel Shaffer and Steven Gilbert

THE tragedy in Flint, Mich., thrust lead contamination into the spotlight, and much attention has been focused rightly on the terrible consequences of childhood lead exposure.

Most people, however, are unaware that adults can also experience serious health effects from lead. As with many chemicals and hazards, workers are often more highly exposed than the general population. Examples of industries with high potential for lead exposure include construction and battery manufacturing. In these and other industries, not only are workers at elevated risk, but their families may also be exposed inadvertently through take-home lead dust.

In Washington state, there are two primary standards that regulate occupational exposure to lead: the “general industry lead standard” and the “lead in construction standard.” Unfortunately, both of these standards are severely outdated, based on information available in the 1970s instead of the latest scientific and medical evidence.

Under the existing inadequate standards, workers can be exposed to levels of lead that result in blood-lead levels up to six times higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s maximum health goal for adults.

Moreover, levels of lead much lower than Washington state’s current standard have been linked to high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, reproductive effects and neurological impairments. Standards should change to reflect the latest public-health recommendations and scientific evidence.

To adequately protect workers and their families, blood-lead levels must be routinely monitored when there is any possibility of lead exposure, and individuals should be removed from their duties when their blood-lead levels are above the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s reference level for adults.

We have the technology to drastically reduce occupational lead exposure. We need to give workers the safe workplaces they deserve.

The health benefits of updated occupational lead standards would extend beyond workers and would also protect their children and families.

Workers often inadvertently carry lead dust on their skin and clothing when they return home, which can cause lead poisoning among family members. Stricter standards that require lower workplace lead levels and better personal protection would substantially reduce take-home lead exposures.

Second, since lead easily crosses the placenta during pregnancy, children born to lead-exposed workers are at risk for neurodevelopmental and other adverse health effects. Better standards would reduce potential fetal lead exposure in female workers of childbearing age.

The state Department of Labor and Industries should move swiftly to update our existing outdated lead standards. Workers in this state should not be subject to the health risks of lead exposure. Nor should their children suffer the secondhand consequences of this well-known poison.

It’s time to take action and give our workers and their families the protection they deserve.

For additional information on the Washington State process to update the occupational lead standard, please visit: http://lni.wa.gov/Safety/Rules/WhatsNew/LeadSafety/default.asp

 

Reflections on Reform

There has been no shortage of news articles and blog posts about the recent passage of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which amends the ineffective and outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). And, you probably don’t need to read another description of the strengths and weaknesses of the ultimate compromise. (If you do want a quick primer on why this reform matters, though, I would recommend this NPR interview with my former boss, Richard Denison, or his post on why this is a “really big deal.“)

Nevertheless, I want to add some reflections of my own on this historic occasion.

As a student in the environmental health field, this bill is particularly significant to me. Not only does the reform directly influence issues that I think about constantly, both personally and academically, but it will also likely set the stage for my future career.

It is exciting to think that I, along with fellow classmates in toxicology, environmental epidemiology, and exposure science programs across the country, will soon be able to participate directly in the implementation of this updated chemical safety system. We can feel a new sense of possibility with our work, instead of the backdrop of futility that comes when we learn in our foundational courses that – despite the damning evidence- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not even ban asbestos(!). With that (previous) reality in mind, could there be any hope that our efforts studying other potentially harmful chemicals would ever make an impact? As an analogy, what if there were a law that prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from implementing effective vaccination programs? How would budding infectious disease epidemiologists feel about their opportunities for contributing to real public health advancements? Now, with the Lautenberg Act, we have a new framework in place that will at least offer the chance for us to use our research to make a difference. I hope that this will inspire others to join this dynamic, interdisciplinary field.

TSCA reform will impact and energize many aspects of environmental health. For example, the new mandate for safety reviews of all chemicals in active commerce will require investment in efficient and accurate screening tools. New testing technologies are already being developed, but further work and innovation – as well as input from a diverse array of scientists – will be necessary to ensure their reliability, relevance, and validity.

In addition, this reform will likely spur more research to understand the unique susceptibility of certain populations. The bill contains provisions that explicitly require protection of “potentially exposed or susceptible population[s].” This category includes “infants, children, pregnant women, workers, and the elderly,” but also other individuals who may be “susceptible to greater adverse health consequences from chemical exposures than the general population” – for example, because of their genetics. The study of gene-environment interactions (also known as “toxicogenetics”) aims to investigate specific genes that make some individuals more sensitive to chemicals. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, summed up this idea with the phrase “genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.” Toxicogenetics is already a rapidly growing field, but I anticipate future work in this area will be crucial in helping us to determine the levels at which regulations should be set to ensure protection for those who are most vulnerable.

While there will likely be numerous positive consequences of the reform bill, the success of this updated chemical policy system is far from guaranteed. Numerous roadblocks may appear, such as the possibility of a mismanaged EPA or the paralyzing impact of endless cost-benefit analyses in risk management decisions. Passing TSCA reform was a difficult and momentous task, but the hard work will continue. We must maintain pressure to hold EPA accountable, prevent entanglement by special interests, and ensure the law is executed correctly. And, Congress must provide adequate funding to environmental health research programs, which will produce key scientific evidence to guide EPA and educate the next generation of scientists (like me!).

This compromise was not perfect, but the bill does represent a real improvement over the status quo. Now, the environmental health community has an exciting chance to help make its enactment as strong as it can be, through robust research and continued advocacy.

I can’t wait to play my part.

 

Domestic legislation with international implications?

Take a look at these three world maps. Does anything stand out to you?

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For interactive versions of these maps, visit the Synergies Among the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions webpage (also the source for these static images)

 

Maybe the uninspiring shade of grey that covers the United States in each one?

Yes, that’s what caught my attention as well.

These maps indicate member countries for the Stockholm Convention, the Rotterdam Convention, and the Basel Convention, respectively. The Stockholm Convention aims to eliminate or restrict Persistent Organic Pollutants, or “POPs,” which are toxic chemicals that persist in the environment and build up in organisms. The Rotterdam Convention promotes open exchange of information about specific pesticides and industrial chemicals. And, the Basel Convention focuses on the management of hazardous waste. Member countries (indicated by color coding on each of the maps above) can participate and negotiate in the relevant discussions. The United States, along with countries such as South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq, and Uzbekistan, has not officially ratified the treaties.

The obstacle to forward movement on this issue is Congress (surprise, surprise). As with any international treaty, approval requires the “advice and consent” of two thirds of the Senate. But before this vote can take place, Congress needs to amend existing federal laws – the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and the Resource Conversation and Recovery Act (RCRA) – so the U.S. is able to comply with the treaties (for example, to give EPA the authority to regulate chemicals listed). Over the years, several relevant amendments have been proposed, but none have passed..

The chemicals regulated in these treaties are among the worst of the worst – dioxins, PCBs, DDT, as well as several multi-syllabic pesticides – and they tend to migrate long distances through wind, water, and biological organisms. EPA needs to have the ability to take appropriate actions on these chemicals, and others added in the future, to protect public health and the environment.

By abstaining from the treaties, the U.S. cannot negotiate for the addition of other dangerous compounds that may pose serious health risks to our population. (These chemicals do not respect borders, and pollutants released across the world can travel and cause harm here. The Alaskan Artic region is especially vulnerable). And, although U.S. taxpayers contribute to the Global Environment Facility – a fund that provides grants to assist countries on specific environmental improvement projects, including many related to the clean-up of POPs – we have no input on the use of these funds, since we are not members of the convention.

TSCA reform is currently under negotiation in the Senate and House, and while there have been intense discussions about many key components of the bill (such as state-preemption), minimal information is available regarding potential implications for these international treaties. However, it is crucial that the final legislation include such provisions, thereby paving the way for the U.S. to participate meaningfully in discussions regarding global chemicals of concern.