Environmental Committee Holds Hearing on Mercury Exposure

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Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh joined two of his colleagues on the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, including Committee Chair Bob Sweeney, for a public hearing in Albany on October 13, 2009 to examine measures to reduce mercury exposure in New York State.

Mercury, a naturally occurring element, is found in air, water, and soil. It has been used in the production of cement and a number of household items including thermometers, switches, and fluorescent light bulbs, as well as in batteries, novelty toys, and some product packaging. Mercury is also a component of coal, with coal-burning power plants representing the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air worldwide.

Studies have found that mercury exposure at high levels can harm the human brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system, with infants and children especially susceptible. At high levels of exposure, mercury can lead to death, reduced reproduction, abnormal behavior, and slower growth and development in fish and animals.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently released a study of mercury contamination in 291 streams nationwide, which tested more than 1,000 fish. Mercury was found in each fish sampled. At the hearing, Douglas Burns of the USGS's Water Science Center in Troy, New York offered testimony about the results of this study and other scientific research into sources and effects of mercury pollution.

Various witnesses took special notice of the previous permission granted by the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to Lafarge North America, a cement plant in Ravena, New York that is reportedly the State's largest mercury polluter. DEC Deputy Commissioner Valerie Washington testified that the State intends soon to ban the use of mercury-tainted coal fly ash at all cement plants. Elyse Kunz of Ravena-based Community Advocates for Safe Emissions (CASE) testified about the effect of emissions from the plant on her community and CASE's efforts to fight back.

Deputy Commissioner Washington also testified about DEC's participation in interstate efforts to reduce mercury emissions and statutory changes that would strengthen DEC's ability to combat mercury exposure, particularly in manufactured products and solid waste. Other witnesses offering testimony included Dr. Charles Driscoll of Syracuse University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Mark Kohorst of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, Dr. Maida Galvez of Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Pediatric Environmental Health Unit, George Schuler of the Nature Conservancy, Terri Goldberg of the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association, Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Joseph Sterling of the Mercury Policy Project.

Several witnesses testified about the effectiveness of public education in teaching children about the potential dangers of excessive mercury exposure - especially for young children and pregnant women - in household products and from consumption of certain fish. Some also made the point that, in a world in which mercury is present at some level in many products and much of the supply of fish, the harm of some exposure to mercury must be balanced against the benefits offered by a particular product or food. For example, several witnesses agreed that the environmental benefits of using compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) offset the danger presented by the fact that they contain small amounts of mercury - although some also emphasized that steps should be taken to minimize the amount of mercury, to ensure proper handling of broken bulbs and proper disposal or recycling, and ultimately to develop CFLs or other energy-efficient lighting alternatives that contain no mercury. Similarly, several witnesses asserted that the harm of consuming mercury in fish must be balanced against the benefits of including fish in one's diet, especially when compared to meats and other foods that are less nutritious and higher in saturated fat.

Witnesses also presented testimony on the efforts of other countries and other U.S. states - especially Maine - to reduce or eliminate mercury in household and commercial products and to collect and recycle mercury-containing products.

Kavanagh previously introduced legislation that aims to lessen the public's exposure to mercury, bill A.00707, which would prohibit the use of mercury-containing gauges and the sale of mercury-containing thermometers in New York. He has also introduced related legislation, A.06813B, that would require recycling of rechargeable batteries, so that the toxic metals they contain do not end up polluting the environment.

Based on testimony received at the hearing, Kavanagh will continue to work with his legislative colleagues, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and various interested parties and advocates to pass legislation and implement policy to reduce New Yorker's exposure to mercury and other toxins to the greatest feasible extent.
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