U.S. Company Schemes to Dump Used Mercury in India

Feature story - January 5, 2001
An American company planned to export 118 tons of used mercury, a highly poisonous metal, to India. Despite attempts by citizens' groups in the United States to prevent the export, the company initially intended to go ahead with the shipment to an undisclosed location in India. The U.S. government was refusing to intervene.

Children of JP Nagar and Ayubnagar, the second generation affected by the disaster in Bhopal, India.

The federal government and U.S. companies have routinely used India and other developing countries as dumping grounds for their unwanted products, hazardous wastes and dirty and obsolete technologies. This is the latest manifestation of ongoing toxic imperialism.

However, the export broker decided to recall the first 20 ton consignment of the material already on its way to India after protests began in India. He commented, "We're not going to send it to India. At this point, it becomes such an emotional item. Why stir up a hornet's nest?"

It was also a preliminary success in the larger struggle to phase out mercury use and trade worldwide when U.S. Congressman Tom Allen (D-ME) announced that he would introduce legislation to phase out certain uses of mercury and provide for waste mercury to be stored and retired rather than exported to developing countries.

Background

In September 2000, HoltraChem, a chlorine and alkali factory in Maine closed down. More than 118 tons of mercury, a highly toxic metal, was recovered from the factory's equipment. Due to a growing concern about the deadly environmental and health effects associated with mercury, industrialized countries including the U.S. have been phasing out the use of mercury in many applications. However, this stockpile of used mercury is to be exported to India.

Citizens' groups in Maine protested on December 17 outside HoltraChem's factory demanding that the used mercury and its associated environmental liabilities should not be exported to India or any other country. The activists demanded that the mercury should be safely stored within U.S. borders. However, both the company and the federal government were approached by the Governor of Maine to take responsibility for the mercury. But both refused.

As a result, this deadly shipment may be sent to India. The mercury stockpile has been purchased by Illinois-based D.F. Goldsmith & Metal Corp., and is temporarily being stored in Albany, New York at Mercury Waste Solutions Inc. The shipment is likely to be imported into India via the port of Mumbai. No details about the proposed date of shipment or arrival are available yet.

Mercury's Toxic Effects

Mercury is a known nerve poison that is persistent and accumulates in the environment and human body. Mercury affects the human brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. The liquid metal, which most of us know as the silver liquid inside thermometers, is particularly dangerous to women of childbearing years, pregnant women and young children.

A recent study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences warned that at least 60,000 babies per year in the United States could be at risk for lower IQ and learning disabilities because their mothers have eaten mercury-contaminated fish and seafood. The metal is considered a global pollutant because it travels around the world, carried by wind and rain. Mercury does not break down; it accumulates in the fat of animals, concentrating as it moves up the food chain.

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