Policy Changes Needed
Pollution in People Report - Chapter 4 - Heavy Metals: Policy Changes Needed
Heavy metals have a long history of industrial and personal use—and just as long a history of harming human health. Only relatively recently have people begun to take action to curtail their use. Decades of evidence on lead’s health effects were amassed before the metal was banned in paint and gasoline, and lead is still allowed in many consumer products. Arsenic-treated wood was extremely widely used before manufacturers agreed to phase it out. Recently, a number of states, including Washington and Oregon, have passed legislation to address mercury use in products such as thermometers and thermostats, but major sources like coal burning continue.
Local advocacy and legislation have made a difference in reducing continued pollution with these metals. In 2005, an independent consumer watchdog group found high levels of lead in children’s soft vinyl lunchboxes. In response to a request by the Washington Toxics Coalition, the Washington State Department of Ecology took action in late 2005 to prevent the sale of such lunchboxes in the state.
King County has had tremendous success in reducing mercury pollution from dental offices by cracking down on dentists to keep mercury out of their wastewater. Mercury in dental offices comes from amalgam fillings, which are about half mercury by weight. State law requires dentists to use devices called separators, which remove mercury from wastewater, but compliance in the past has been poor. By conducting inspections and threatening fines, King County was able to achieve 97% compliance and a 50% reduction in mercury in wastewater between 2000 and 2003 (King County 2005).
The following actions would reduce ongoing exposure to these toxic heavy metals:
- Lead, mercury, and arsenic should be phased out of products.
- Coal burning should be replaced with conservation and cleaner sources of fuel for energy production. In the meantime, existing coal-fired power plants should be required to install the best technology to limit mercury emissions.
- Contaminated sites should be cleaned up promptly and fully. Where a large geographic area is contaminated, state government should take measures to ensure facilities such as schools and day care centers are not sited on contaminated soil.
- Solid-waste and medical-waste incinerators should be shut down and replaced with waste and toxicity reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting programs.
- Health care facilities, including hospitals and dental offices, should phase out mercury-containing products in favor of safer alternatives.
- Government agencies should expand programs to remove, collect, and safely store mercury from thermostats, thermometers, and switches.
- School districts should take remedial action to eliminate lead exposure to children from school drinking water.