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E-M:/ News Release: Mercury Pollution From Automobiles at Record Levels

Title: News Release: Mercury Pollution From Automobiles at Record
April 7, 2004

Jeff Gearhart, Ecology Center, 734-663-2400 ext. 117
Karen Thomas, Environmental Defense, 413-587-2270

Mercury Pollution From Automobiles at Record Levels
Public Health at Stake Unless Auto Industry/Policymakers Take Action Today

(07 April 2004 -- Detroit)  According to a new analysis by the Clean Car Campaign, approximately 710 pounds of mercury pollution were released into the environment last year from scrap vehicles in Michigan when they were recycled.  Nearly 10,000 pounds of mercury have already been released from Michigan vehicles over the past 20 years, and approximately an equal amount could be released over the next two decades if action is not taken soon to recover mercury before vehicles are scrapped.  To download a copy of the report, please visit: http://www.cleancarcampaign.org/mercuryupdate.shtml
"In order to stop the continued assault on the public's health from automotive sources of mercury emissions, immediate steps must now be taken by policymakers and auto companies to establish a mercury recovery program for scrap cars," stated Jeff Gearhart, Campaign Director at the Ecology Center.  "Continuing to allow mercury from scrap automobiles to pollute our treasured lakes and waterways, from which we can't even eat the fish, is both unnecessary and irresponsible."

Nationally, domestic automakers have used more than 200 million, one-gram mercury switches in vehicles since the early 1980's.  In January 2001, the Ecology Center and Environmental Defense released reports estimating that the recycling of scrap automobiles in steel manufacturing facilities was the 4th largest source of mercury emissions into the environment.

The Clean Car Campaign based its new findings on results of a Michigan study of auto dismantling yards completed in late 2002, which provided further documentation on the amount of mercury in vehicles. The study, jointly conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), found an average of .54 switches per vehicle--the equivalent of more than 4 million vehicles in Michigan containing a mercury switch.  Last year, an estimated 710 pounds of mercury was released from approximately 322,147 switches contained in retired vehicles.

The Clean Car Campaign has called on auto manufacturers to share responsibility for the collection and recovery of mercury from their automobiles. In 2003 automakers finally phased-out mercury switches they put into new vehicles, but have done very little to encourage the recovery of mercury from the millions of vehicles still on the road.

"In the three years since we issued our Mercury in Vehicles report, less than one percent of the mercury in vehicles has been recovered, resulting in the release of an estimated 54,000 pounds of mercury in the U.S. into the environment," stated Karen Thomas, State Policy Director at Environmental Defense.  "Its time for automakers to be part of the solution, not part of problem." 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has been working on a proposal for a voluntary statewide switch collection program over the past year that establishes a goal of capturing 80% of the switches now contained in Michigan vehicles.  The proposal provides incentives for auto dismantlers that participate in the program, and would ensure that a statewide collection system is in place for handling the switches once they are removed.  To date, the proposal has been stuck due to opposition from automakers to providing a significant share of the funding. 

Legislation requiring automakers to share responsibility for the mercury switch problem has been introduced in several states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and New Jersey, and is now law in the State of Maine.  Maine's legislation requires automakers to pay a minimum of $1 per switch to auto dismantlers that turn in switches to designated collection centers.  Earlier this year, the automakers' trade association--the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM)--lost a legal challenge to Maine's comprehensive mercury recovery program. 

"Michigan's automakers have known about this problem for more than a decade, but still insist they shouldn't be responsible for helping clean it up," stated the Ecology Center's Jeff Gearhart.   "This is not the kind of corporate citizenship that will help restore Michigan's lakes and streams from health-threatening mercury pollution."

Mercury is a persistent heavy metal that is highly toxic to humans and wildlife and is dangerous in even tiny amounts.  The Environmental Protection Agency has recently estimated that one in every six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her blood to pose a risk to her child - resulting in over 600,000 children being born each year overexposed to mercury.   Mercury contamination is bioaccumulative; therefore its concentration increases up the food chain.  As a result, top predator fish have mercury concentrations up to a million times higher than the surrounding water.

The Clean Car Campaign is coordinated by the Ecology Center and Environmental Defense.

The Ecology Center is a regional environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which works for clean air, safe water, and environmental justice.    The Auto Project of the Ecology Center works to address the toxic and health issues related to the production of automobiles and promotes cleaner vehicle technologies. 

Environmental Defense, a leading national nonprofit organization, represents more than 400,000 members.  Since 1967, Environmental Defense has linked science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to create breakthrough solutions to the most serious environmental problems.