EPA Leadership in the Global Mercury Partnership
The majority of mercury deposited in the United States is from global sources, including a combination of: natural sources (such as volcanoes); historically deposited mercury that is re-emitted to the atmosphere; and man-made emissions from a variety of sources, such as coal fired power plants, industrial processes, production of gold and other metals, and artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Global Mercury Partnership engages countries and stakeholders to reduce mercury use and releases of mercury to the environment. Work under the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership began in 2005. EPA is actively involved in the Partnership, working with governments and stakeholders to reduce mercury use and emissions.
This work has and will continue to make tangible improvements in the health of communities in many parts of the world, with seven active partnership areas:
- coal combustion,
- artisanal gold mining,
- mercury waste management,
- mercury supply and storage, and
- mercury air transport and fate research.
EPA is actively engaged in several projects and programs within the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership. For example:
- Addressing Products Containing Mercury
- Reducing Mercury Emissions from Industrial Processes and Mining
- Reducing the Supply of Mercury in the Global Market
- Understanding the Movement of Mercury in the Atmosphere
These activities are described below.
Under the Mercury-Containing Products Partnership Area, EPA leads global work to reduce use and demand for mercury-containing products worldwide.
- This program promotes substitution, where feasible, and development of alternatives where none are currently available.
- It also seeks to identify, reduce, and eliminate mercury releases from the manufacture and use of mercury-containing products.
- In one initiative, EPA has worked in several countries to eliminate mercury-containing medical devices in hospitals.
Mercury is used in numerous industrial processes, including mining. EPA has taken a role in several projects to reduce the use and release of mercury in several sectors.
EPA is leading an effort to reduce mercury releases and human exposure in artisanal and small scale gold mining, which is the largest global source of mercury releases to the environment.
- In Senegal, EPA trained miners on the health impacts of mercury, and helped miners reduce risk with practices such as the use of locally-made, hand-held “retorts,” small devices which capture mercury vapor.
- In the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, EPA teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory to pilot locally-built, inexpensive mercury vapor recovery systems in gold processing shops, dramatically reducing mercury levels for workers, customers, and the surrounding communities. Download a report on the technology demonstration [PDF, 84 pp, 2.67 MB]]
Mercury is also emitted in the process of zinc smelting. To address this:
- EPA helped develop a more robust mercury emission inventory in China, in order to understand how much mercury is coming from the zinc sector.
- EPA is also supporting studies on mercury emissions from other nonferrous metals production.
Mercury is sometimes used in the chlor-alkali process, which refers to the manufacture of chlorine and caustic soda (lye).
- EPA leads global work providing technical assistance and information exchange on non-mercury technologies, best practices, and management of surplus mercury.
- As part of this effort, EPA has assisted Russian chlorine producers in upgrading plant processes and equipment to reduce releases by almost 1 metric ton per year.
- EPA has also helped the Partnership create a global inventory of mercury-cell chlor-alkali facilities.
The last mine known to export primary mined mercury to the global market is in the nation of Kyrgyzstan. The mine is in the town of Khairdarken and operated by the Kyrgyz Republic. This mine represents approximately 10% of the global mercury market.
EPA is assisting the nation of Kyrgyzstan to develop a plan to phase out primary mercury production at this mine. This work is conducted in partnership with UNEP, UNITAR, and the Government of Switzerland.
Learn more about the Primary Mercury Supply Project of the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership.
One important aspect of managing mercury emissions is understanding how mercury moves through the global atmosphere. This work is managed by a part of the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership known as the Air Transport and Fate Research Area.
- EPA contributed to the planning and development of a comprehensive report on the current status of the science in mercury air emissions, air modeling and air monitoring on a global scale.
- This effort, led by Italy, involved over 70 scientists from 12 countries.
For additional information on EPA's work with mercury, contact:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2670R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460