Until several years ago, many auto manufacturers used mercury in
automobile light switches and anti-lock brakes. When those cars are
scrapped and recycled -- usually by melting down the steel -- the
mercury is emitted to the environment. Each mercury switch contains
1 gram of mercury, which is enough to contaminate a 30-acre lake.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the
280,000 vehicles junked annually in Illinois contain between 400 and
800 pounds of mercury from light switches. Once in the air, mercury
can be deposited into rivers and lakes, contaminating fish and
getting into the food chain, where it can pose a serious health
risk. Steel mills that melt down metal switches are a leading source
of mercury emissions, after coal-fired power plants.
Also on April
22, the governor renewed his call to the Illinois Pollution Control
Board to approve his proposal to cut mercury emissions from power
plants by 90 percent by June 30, 2009. The state standards will
reduce toxic mercury emissions faster and more thoroughly than
federal restrictions and will achieve the largest overall amount of
mercury reduction of any state in the country.
"Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause serious
health problems like brain damage, autism, deafness and blindness,"
Blagojevich said. "What better day than Earth Day to reinforce our
commitment to removing mercury from our environment and protecting
children, pregnant women and everyone else whose health is put at
risk by mercury pollution?"
House Bill 5578, sponsored by Rep. Karen May, D-Highland Park,
and Sen. Terry Link, D-Lake Bluff, requires the removal of mercury
switches before vehicles are scrapped. This helps reduce toxic
mercury emitted from steel-making facilities in the region. Mercury
switches can be found in hood and trunk lighting of certain vehicles
manufactured before 2003, as well as anti-lock brake systems on some
four-wheel-drive vehicles. Since scrap metal from shredded vehicles
is used to produce new steel in electric arc furnaces, removing the
mercury switches before the vehicle is scrapped will help reduce
toxic mercury emitted from steel-making facilities.
The new law requires automakers to create mercury switch
collection programs, offering storage containers to auto recyclers
and dismantlers and arranging for transportation of the removed
switches. Participation by auto recyclers is voluntary during the
first two years; however, if the switch capture rate doesn't meet
the required level after two years, then it becomes mandatory for
recyclers to participate, and automakers would then have to pay auto
recyclers for every switch they remove. Illinois EPA is required to
help the automakers conduct outreach to inform auto recyclers about
proper switch removal practices and encourage participation in the
"I am pleased that Illinois is the first Midwestern state to
address this environmental health hazard," said May, House sponsor
of the legislation. "Mercury causes brain damage, especially in
children, and passing this bill was a big success. But, we must
continue to work to get rid of mercury in our environment, and I am
committed to doing just that."
"Mercury has become a serious environmental issue over the past
few years," said Link, Senate sponsor of the bill. "Prior to that,
we had no idea that mercury was so harmful. It is imperative that we
dispose of these mercury switches in a safe and secure fashion. By
disposing of these switches properly, we can significantly reduce
the pollutants in our air."
"Earth Day reminds us in Illinois of our constitutional right to
a healthful environment," Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. "I applaud
Governor Blagojevich for his continued efforts to make Illinois a
leader in mercury removal, and I salute Representative Karen May and
Senator Terry Link for their hard work to eliminate this toxic
pollutant from our environment."
"By eliminating the number two source of mercury pollution in
Illinois, we have made Illinois significantly safer," said Jonathan
Goldman, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
"Existing programs have shown that financial incentives
significantly increase the number of switches pulled. Illinois'
program will be one of the toughest programs in the country."
"This legislation will keep 800 pounds a year of toxic mercury
out of our environment, and Illinois PIRG applauds Representative
Karen May, the Legislature and Governor Blagojevich for it," said
Max Muller, clean water advocate for Environment Illinois, the new
home of the environmental program of the Illinois Public Interest
Research Group. "Meanwhile, thousands of pounds of toxic mercury are
still being emitted from coal-burning power plants across the state.
Governor Blagojevich has proposed a common-sense rule to eliminate
this toxic threat, and if approved, this rule will make Illinois a
national leader in protecting generations of children from toxic
"This legislation is the spark to protecting our children and the
environment from mercury harms," said Howard Learner, executive
director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Coal plants
are the biggest mercury polluters. Now let's get the governor's
mercury reduction plan in place to protect our kids' health."
In January, Blagojevich announced his proposal to aggressively
cut mercury emissions from Illinois power plants by 90 percent by
mid-2009. These state standards will go far beyond the federal Clean
Air Mercury Rule restrictions adopted last spring and would make
Illinois a national leader in efforts to reduce toxic emissions into
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the federal rule
on March 10, 2005. It required coal-fired power plants to reduce
mercury emissions 47 percent by 2010 and 79 percent by 2018. The
proposed Illinois rules are significantly stronger, requiring a 90
percent emissions reduction by June 30, 2009, and prohibiting power
plants from purchasing allowances or trading emissions credits with
other companies or states -- practices that can lead to toxic "hot
spots" in areas where individual plants are able to get around
In the U.S., an estimated 43 percent of mercury emissions come
from power plants, making them the largest man-made source of
mercury emissions. The Illinois EPA estimates that the state's
coal-fired power plants emit 3.5 tons of mercury into the air every
The governor's proposed rules were filed March 14 with the
Illinois Pollution Control Board. The proposed rule for tougher
mercury standards will go before the Joint Committee on
Administrative Rules this summer.
Mercury can cause serious health problems to the human nervous
system. Pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children
younger than 15 years of age are especially at risk. Developing
fetuses can be exposed to mercury when a mother eats tainted fish.
As a result, they can suffer mental retardation, cerebral palsy,
lower IQs, slow motor functions, deafness, blindness and other
health problems. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent
of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to
excessive mercury levels in the womb.
When mercury is released to the air, it can be deposited into
rivers and lakes, contaminating fish and getting into the food
chain. The Illinois Department of Public Health has issued a
statewide fish consumption advisory, warning pregnant women, nursing
mothers and young children to eat no more than one meal a week of
predator fish (e.g., bass, walleye and northern pike) caught in
Illinois waters, due to high mercury concentrations. Mercury is
especially toxic to young children and fetuses. Long-term exposure
to low levels of mercury can harm the central nervous system and
cause learning problems in both humans and wildlife. The damage to
the nervous system can include lower intelligence and slowed motor
"Illinois is moving to protect our kids' health by tackling the
major sources of toxic mercury pollution one by one," said Jack
Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. "Our hospitals
are cleaning up by closing their waste incinerators; we will no
longer burn or landfill car parts that contain mercury; and Governor
Blagojevich has proposed to cut 90 percent of the mercury coming out
of our coal plants. By taking these strong actions to clean up
mercury pollution, Illinois is not only protecting our children but
also setting an example for America to follow."
Environmental consciousness has become part of mainstream culture
since the inception of Earth Day 36 years ago. Though it is
celebrated one day during the year, Blagojevich believes that
protecting, restoring, cleaning up and preserving the environment is
something that should be celebrated on a year-round basis. Since
coming into office, he has demonstrated his continual commitment to
improving the environment, both in Illinois and regionally:
Blagojevich called on 11 hospitals across the state that were
still burning medical waste to voluntarily shut down their
incinerators. Incinerators emit mercury and dioxins, which have
been linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems.
As a result of the governor's action, six incinerators have been
shut down and four others have agreed to schedules for shutdown.
Focusing on retail
products, last year the governor signed legislation that ended
the sale of mercury thermometers and novelty items. This is
another step to remove mercury from the waste stream and replace
the items with safer available alternatives. This bill supports
previous legislation that further reduced mercury-containing
products that pose a potential health hazard to Illinois
residents, making schools, homes and other buildings safer.
The governor and
state agencies are also making Illinois a leader in the use of
cleaner alternate fuels, such as E-85 ethanol, biodiesel and
hybrids, through executive orders issued by the governor that
relate to the state vehicle fleet, numerous workshops around the
state, a rebate program and the governor's recent proposal for a
$500 state tax credit for certain fuel-efficient electric hybrid
In addition, the
governor's Clean School Bus Program is resulting in cleaner air
for thousands of Illinois schoolchildren as a result of grants
for retrofitting diesel buses with control equipment and use of
cleaner fuels, as well as investments made by private school bus
The governor is
also very committed to encouraging clean-coal technology and is
aggressively pursing the federal FutureGen demonstration
project, which will use coal for power with virtually zero
push to improve the region's air quality, Blagojevich sent
Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott to Washington, D.C., last week for
a meeting with other top environmental officials, representing
Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas and
members of the Ozone Transport Commission.
[News release from the governor's