Fact Sheet 2012–3122
Mercury is a toxic pollutant. In its elemental form, gaseous mercury has a long residence time in the atmosphere, up to a year, allowing it to be transported long distances from emission sources. Mercury can be emitted from natural sources such as volcanoes, or from anthropogenic sources, such as coal-fired powerplants. In addition, all sources of mercury on the Earth’s surface can re-emit it from land and sea back to the atmosphere, from which it is then redeposited.
Mercury in the atmosphere is present in such low concentrations that it is not considered harmful. Once mercury enters the aquatic environment, however, it can undergo a series of biochemical transformations that convert a portion of the mercury originally present to methylmercury, a highly toxic organic form of mercury that accumulates in fish and birds. Many factors contribute to creation of methylmercury in aquatic ecosystems, including mercury availability, sediment and nutrient load, bacterial influence, and chemical conditions. In the United States, consumption of fish with high levels of methylmercury is the most common pathway for human exposure to mercury, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue fish consumption advisories in every State.
The EPA estimates that 50 percent of the mercury entering the atmosphere in the United States is emitted from coal-burning utility powerplants. An EPA rule, known as MATS (for Mercury and Air Toxics Standards), to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from powerplants, was signed in December 2011. The rule, which is currently under review, specifies limits for mercury and other toxic elements, such as arsenic, chromium, and nickel. MATS also places limits on emission of harmful acid gases, such as hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid. These standards are the result of a 2010 detailed nationwide program by the EPA to sample stack emissions and thousands of shipments of coal to coal-burning powerplants. The United States is the only nation to have collected such detailed information for mercury in both its coal and its utility emissions.
First posted November 13, 2012
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Kolker, Allan, Quick, J.C., Senior, C.L., and Belkin, H.E., 2012, Mercury and halogens in coal—Their role in determining mercury emissions from coal combustion: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2012–3122, 6 p. (Also available at https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2012/3122/.)