Where does mercury come from? What can we do about it?

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance, but can enter the environment from human activities. These activities include air emissions and improper disposal of mercury-containing products.

Mercury in our air
Mercury is emitted into the atmosphere from facilities and vehicles that burn fossil fuel. After being emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes, airborne mercury can travel hundreds or thousands of miles before falling back to Earth through rain, snow and dry depositions. It can end up in our rivers and lakes, and can accumulate in the fish that we consume.

Since there are sources within Nebraska that contribute to this global problem, we need to do our part to reduce the amount of mercury that is being emitted into the air. NDEQ is proposing new rules that would enact national Clean Air Mercury laws, which have a goal of reducing overall mercury emissions from coal-burning utilities by 70%. See “State Proposes New Mercury Rules” for more information

Mercury-containing products
Mercury can also enter the environment from mercury-containing products that are discarded or broken. Although they travel a different pathway, the main concern regarding this form of mercury pollution is the same as with mercury air emissions – eventually, the mercury can find its way into our rivers and lakes, and into the fish we eat.

Two projects are currently being pursued in Nebraska to reduce the amount of mercury being released from mercury-containing products. Nebraska is participating a voluntary program called the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program. This program promotes the collection of mercury switches from scrap vehicles before they are shredded for recycling. NDEQ has also targeted waste reduction grants to support projects that prevent mercury from being released into the environment.

There state also has a mercury “Bucket Program,” which is a collection program that allows Nebraskans to dispose of any pure mercury-containing items that will fit in a five-gallon collection bucket for recycling. Click here for more information about Nebraska Health and Human Services mercury efforts.

Fish consumption advisories
When mercury from human activity gets into our rivers and lakes, it can transform into methyl mercury, and can accumulate in fish tissue. Consumption of fish that contains mercury is considered the primary path of human exposure. Click here to learn more about potential health effects.

Because fish consumption is the primary source of exposure, Nebraska has been regularly collecting fish for tissue analysis since 1986. As of July 2007, Nebraska had fish tissue advisories at 19 lakes and three streams. There are 514 publicly-owned lakes and reservoirs, and over 1500 stream segments in Nebraska. Click here for more mercury facts, and a list of current fish tissue advisories in Nebraska.

Improving Monitoring Efforts
NDEQ is looking at ways of improving the measurement of mercury’s impact to the environment. The state is enhancing its fish tissue sampling program to further define the extent of mercury contamination in the fish in Nebraska’s rivers and lakes. NDEQ also plans to install air monitors that will provide information about the levels of mercury depositing in Nebraska through rain and snow. In addition, as part of the proposed mercury rule, utilities will need to provide detailed continuous emissions monitoring information about their coal-burning facilities’ mercury emissions beginning January 2009.

Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
1200 "N" Street, Suite 400
P.O. Box 98922
Lincoln, Nebraska 68509
(402) 471-2186