Dangerous mercury levels in New England rain

A new National Wildlife Federation report has revealed that rain falling on New England contains mercury levels far exceeding what is considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


A new report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), one of the US’s largest conservation groups, has revealed that rain falling over cities, coasts, and even remote national parks in the New England states has been found to contain quantities of mercury as much as 30 times levels considered safe by the EPA.

Clean the Rain, Clean the Lakes II, released on 19 September, examines mercury contamination in rain and snow in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The report found that levels exceeded the EPA’s ‘safe’ level set for people, aquatic life, and wildlife in surface waters.

In Maine’s Acadia National Park; Providence, Rhode Island; Underhill Vermont and the coast of New Hampshire, the levels of mercury in rain are as high as four times the EPA’s aquatic life standard and are damaging to wildlife, the report says. However, taking into consideration the most recently developed EPA human health standard for mercury in surface water, the concentrations as much as 24 times higher than ‘safe’ levels. This latter standard, although it applies to the Great Lakes, is not currently a legal requirement for New England’s waterways, the report points out.

Similarly, in Massachusetts’ Quabbin Reservoir, mercury concentrations in rain are up to three times as high as the EPA’s aquatic life standard for mercury in lakes and streams, which the EPA itself considers inadequate to protect wildlife. Again, concentrations were found to be 24 times the EPA human health standard levels.

The NWF says that the implications of eating fish contaminated with mercury prompted them to launch a Clean the Rain Campaign to alert the public to mercury’s devastating effect on the human nervous system, especially for children and the unborn. It is hoped that this report will draw particular attention to the Northeast’s mercury problem, and to encourage measures to combat it.

The organisation calls on industry to drastically reduce emissions from coal-fired plants which emit mercury and on the EPA and state governments to require mercury controls on coal-burning power plants. They also call on New England states to adopt a schedule for phasing out industrial and commercial mercury emissions by 2010.

The group is also asking local people to help cut mercury pollution by conserving energy, not purchasing consumer products that contain mercury, or if they have purchased them, disposing of them properly. Fluorescent lights, lamps and thermostats are among the most common items containing mercury.

“With so much at stake for both people and wildlife, decisive action is needed now to limit mercury emissions,” said Andy Buchsbaum, NWF’s water quality program manager. “Once mercury pollution goes up into the atmosphere, rain carries it right back down into the water humans and wildlife depend on.”

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