Coal Fired Power Plants, the Mercury Factory, and the Future

Author: Justin NgDecember 2014


Mercury pollution is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and growth and development of both animals and humans. Mercury is a naturally liquid metal that forms in our earth; however, when it comes in contact and is ingested the mercury can begin to affect the health of the human/animal. Bioaccumulation of this metal occurs from eating animals that contain high levels of mercury and in turn will be stored only to create a chain reaction of increasing mercury levels higher up the food chain. The main reason for high levels of mercury in the past were due to chemical wastewaters being dumped into waterways and the ocean, but today with so many environmental laws about waste, the main source of mercury pollution is now through coal and oil power plants. Mercury pollution is an international pollutant that is being talked about by 140 different countries. An incident that caused worldwide recognition of mercury pollution was the tragedy that happened in Japan, the Minamata Disease. World leaders today are implementing and researching new sources of energy to help reduce and eliminate mercury pollution.

Key Words: mercury, coal, Minamata disease, Minamata Convention


Mercury pollution is one of the most harmful chemicals produced through human use of fossil fuels. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect not only humans but also the wild life and their environment as well. Animals that are affected by high levels of mercury are less likely to survive in their habitat and reproduce. Mercury poisoning build up in larger animals due to bioaccumulation. Fish like tuna have high levels of mercury in them because they eat a large amount of fish daily thus accumulating more of this toxin in their body. There are many different types of mercury such as mercuric chloride, mercury sulfide and methyl mercury. Methyl mercury is the most common pollutant when referring to mercury poisoning from fish. Human production and mining are the main sources of mercury pollution in our water, burning of coal, oil, mining for gold, and many different types of metal production are the most prominent polluters of mercury. As we strive to create more energy and increase our own wealth we are responsible for the pollutants that these power plants and mining operations create therefore collectively as a whole, we should do clean up our own messes and decrease the amount of mercury produced and create ways to remove already existing mercury pollutants. If we do not do something to the increase in mercury pollution it may result into something catastrophic and can eventually cause large scale mercury toxicity in the human population this may result in another Minamata incident.

What is Mercury and Where Does It Come From?

Mercury is a liquid metal at room temperature known as Hg on the periodic table. This metal has been used in many different products like batteries and fertilizer. There are three different types of mercury, inorganic, organic and metallic. Mercury is found everywhere from the crust of the earth to the air and oceans, however this particular chemical is highly toxic and causes severe neurological damage. Mercury in small concentrations will not harm you directly, but in higher amounts and through consumption it can accumulate inside your body which eventually will begin to affect your health. Mercury is found in the world’s most beloved resource, coal. Coal contains mercury on an atomic level and when it is burned it is released into our atmosphere along with many other gases. Mercury in the air eventually disperses and falls into our oceans through rain. Mercury is absorbed by the algae in the surface water of the ocean and begins to change into methylmercury, organic mercury, and begins the process of bioaccumulation when eaten by fish.

Environmental Agencies Data on Mercury Emissions:

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in order to reduce the amount of pollutants released into our atmosphere, like mercury, the EPA developed new technology to control the amount of pollution emitted from electrical generator units. These new units will reduce the amount of pollutants like mercury, released from the coal-oil power plants, which can cause toxicity in our waters and animals. While the EPA’s goal is to implement these new types of pollution control technology into our already existing coal-oil power plants, many of these power plants has not implemented the EPA’s pollution control into their electrical generator units, this is most likely due to vested interests of these power plant owners and an increase in cost to their business. According to the EPA about 50% of the pollutants that are emitted from the electrical generator units are mercury, and about 40% of all electrical generators have not implemented pollution control technologies. This poses a very real threat to the health of our environment and even our own health as well. Just like the recent issues of Carbon Dioxide, CO2 has risen to levels that are almost irreversible; mercury may end up being the same kind of problem as CO2 is now. (

Even with the EPA trying to reduce the amount of Mercury pollution, their policies only affect the United States; therefore the rest of the world is still free to emit their share of mercury into the environment. Mercury, like CO2 is emitted into our atmosphere then transported to other places around the world through the air and even if the U.S. does not emit mercury it will still affect our health, and our environment.  According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) the most prominent polluters of mercury in our environment are places like eastern and south eastern parts of Asia that emit around 39% of the total amount of mercury, South America emits 12.5% and the Sub-Sahara Africa emits 16.1%. These places emitions acount for 67% of mercury worldwide. (UNEP Global Mercury Assessment 2013, 11) The UNEP data shows trends from many different countries and their emissions of mercury. According to the data Asia has increased in mercury emissions in the air from roughly 800 tonnes to 1200 tonnes from 1990 to 2005. While China has implemented much new pollution control technologies into their newer coal power plants but these existing power plants are still more prominent and emit a large amount of mercury into the air. These large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere causes mercury pollution into our aquatic environment, this is extremely dangerous because not only can it affect our oceanic animals, but it poses a threat to our fresh water sources as well. If our fresh water sources become polluted it can harm human health and cause severe neurological damage.


Mercury itself is a naturally occurring metal that can be found in many different types of resources, while some levels of mercury is acceptable but due to anthropogenic interactions increases the amount of mercury that enters the atmosphere. According to the USGS’s data from ice cores mercury levels have been stable mostly throughout the 1800s until the industrial revolution. Ice cores indicate that the spike in mercury was due to the increase in the demand of energy/coal power plants, and factories spiked a large increase of mercury pollutants in the air. There was a 41% increase in mercury pollutants in the first 170 years of the industrial revolution, and then another 70% increase in the last 100 years post industrial revolution. Ice cores are reliable in their data as we use them for many different trends occurring in the world around us. Like other gaseous pollutants from anthropogenic interference ice cores are able to record and trap them. When studied by environmentalists and other geologists we can see certain patterns and fluxes of pollutants and transpose them onto a timeline that correlates to major events in earth’s history. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has now seen drops in mercury pollutant in our atmosphere and believes it is largely due to the clean air act. This shows that anthropogenic interactions and effects are beginning to show signs of lowering levels of mercury and trying to eliminate the pollutant; however this small and sudden drop is only a small indication that it can be reduced. While the recent levels have dropped the current trend of mercury is still increasing so there is not enough data and regulations to show a drop in the curve of mercury emissions into our atmosphere. (USGS ice core data 2002)

The EPA has joined with the UNEP in trying to reduce mercury internationally and is encouraging others to help stop polluting. The EPA has been helping different countries with implementing new technologies and producers. Even in Russia the EPA has been helping them manage their mercury waste product so that it is not thrown away into dumps that may eventually leak into underground water supplies and even oceans as well. The EPA is helping with research in zinc smelting and how it relates to mercury emissions and even helped china build more robust mercury controlling inventories. The world has recognized mercury as a major pollutant and is working together in order to stop and eliminate this emission.

Minamata Disease and Chisso Corporation:

How did Mercury enter the Minamata Bay? Well at the time Environmental Laws were non-existent in many countries. Big companies were allowed to create and dump their waste anywhere because they were increasing the wealth of the country and major information about mercury was available at the time. The biggest company that contributed to major mercury contamination in the Minamata Bay has been traced to the Chisso Company. The Chisso Company formed in 1906. The company began to produce calcium nitrate and eventually made ammonia fertilizer, which gave them a large lead in the industry. Japan’s environmental law like many other countries on the rise did not exist; if it did there was none on waste water. Chisso dumped their chemical waste into the water of the Minamata Bay. Even in the early 1900s Japan relied heavily on their fishing to obtain food for the people. In the Kumomoto prefecture the people fished in order to get food, however they were not warned and did not know that their bay was contaminated, with chemical waste water from the Chisso Corporation.


In 1956 the first case of Minamata Disease occurred, and diagnosed from a five year old girl. Later her house hold began to show signs of the same disease, and the government was unable to find a reason or what kind of disease this was. Many of the infected patients showed different symptoms like paralysis, comas, numbness, and many neurological deficiencies. The hospitalized patients were isolated due to fear the disease was contagious. After studying 55 different patient researchers were able to find the cause of the Minamata disease and discovered that the disease was caused by daily consumption of fish and shellfish. However this information did not stop people from fishing in the Minamata Bay, even though the government advised not eating the fish caught in the bay. Since there were no clean bans the people assumed they can still fish and eat the seafood here. In response to the new information the Chisso Corporation moved their drainage system from the mouth of the bay to a different location, the Minamata River. However this proved to be no different. Since the waste water in the bay stayed primarily around the bay the people affected were isolated. Due to the change in waste water dump into the Minamata River; the pollution was able to spread down the river and into the southern Yatsushiro Sea. This caused an even larger spread of the Minamata Disease into other prefectures near the southern coast and around the river. (Hachiya, 112-114)

This was not the only outbreak, in 1965 there were people who were suffering from methyl mercury poisoning along the basin of the Agano River. The government again suspected that there was source of waste water being dumped into the Agano River. The Showa Denko’s Kanose factory was the most likely source of mercury pollution into the river as they too were synthesizing acetaldehyde in 1965. (Hachiya 115-116) While this was not as severe and extreme as the first outbreak in 1956, both the Chisso and Showa Denko factories have shown to be the prominent cause of the disease from their dumping of chemicals into nearby water sources. From both instances of the Minamata Disease patients totaled roughly 3000. The Minamata disease was the start of world wide recognition of the dangers of mercury pollution into our waterways.

The Minimata Convention:

The Minamata convention was created from this incident of mercury poisoning in a small region of Japan. The poisoning was so bad that they named this large scale mercury poisoning as the Minamata disease. The poisoning caused many different types of complications in the region such as birth defects and neurological damage. As a result from the Minamata disease people suffered from insanity, paralysis, comas and death, other times in less extreme cases the people of Minamata developed a loss in hearing, sight, and sometimes developed muscle weakness. In Japan the disease continued for 36 years and the people of Minamata city in the Kumamoto prefecture suffered. The government at the time did not do anything to reduce the amount of mercury pollution occurring. This severe mercury poisoning that occurred in Minamata caused global recognition of the disasters that mercury pollution can cause and other leaders around the world saw mercury as a pollutant that should be regulated and controlled. This gave birth to the Minamata convention that many different countries participate in to help others and reduce mercury pollution from power plants and artisan gold mining.

The United States is not the only ones concerned with the increased amount of mercury into our environments, the EPA recently joined with other environmental agencies and proponents from around the world for the Minamata Convention held on November 6, 2013. The convention proposed a plan to regulate and control the amount of mercury emissions, and to remove mercury from any products, provide technological assistance to other countries and provide information for the public so they can become well informed of the dangers of mercury and what they can do to help. This plan was agreed upon by 140 different countries who attended the convention. This is a great movement to create awareness and understand the potential threat mercury poses for our environment and our health. With the elimination of products containing mercury, countries are no longer able to produce, trade, or buy these types of product therefore resulting in less mercury pollution from production and transportation.

The Minamata Convention requires all those who ratify the treaty to participate and help eliminate mercury pollution from known anthropogenic sources like small scale gold mining waste and fossil fuel emissions through new technological implementations. The treaty lists 5 different ways to reduce mercury significantly with things like phasing out human use and creation of batteries, lights, cosmetics and pesticides. The treaty states that coal fired power plants must control the amount of emissions being released into the atmosphere. Countries should also reduce or phase out use of known chemicals that contain mercury like acetaldehyde, and chlor-alkali. These 140 countries must also provide assistance and technological support to countries that are developing. The information is based off the Minamata Convention treaty posted on the EPA website. (

Implementation of the Minamata Treaty:

Federal Agencies like the National Resource Defense Council have been taking into major consideration the effects of mercury and have been campaigning to ban and eliminate mercury related processes and products we humans use. Things like batteries, thermometers, and switches are being considered in a ban. In the U.S., 12 different states have prohibited sales of products that contain mercury. ( NRDC has been taking steps to preventing mercury products and contamination into the water system. In support of the EPA’s clean air act, the NRDC has been working towards a safer and healthier environment for both humans and animals.

The European Union, EU has become increasingly more interested in ratifying the treaty. The EU is as of today set for ratifying the treating in 2015. If the EU ratifies the Minamata convention this will be a huge step in reducing mercury and providing a safer environment for ourselves, our children and our future. ( The EU consists of many different European states and this will increase awareness and will help educate and warn people of the dangers of mercury pollution.

Countries in Latin America and Caribbean region have ratified the Minamata treaty in 2013, and have been effectively reducing their import and export of mercury. By 2020 they predict that all mercury added products will all be phased out and switched to non-mercury products. (UNEP, 2014). Latin American and Caribbean countries have been working closely to reducing their mercury emissions and following the guidelines that the Treaty has set. In phasing out mercury products it will lead to a healthier standard of living and medicine, since many hospitals use mercury measuring devices.

Human and Animal Health:

Mercury in our marine foods is mainly methyl mercury, which is created from natural processes in aquatic environments. These marine animals then consume algae which absorbs this type of mercury eventually causing a build up from consumption. This build up is called bioaccumulation. Methyl mercury harms these fish and can cause their chances of survival in their own natural habitat to decrease, mercury poisoning in fish causes them the behave unnaturally, reducing their chances of reproduction and many other complications. This is a serious problem because this can result in an extinction of certain fishes in extreme cases. Methylmercury does not only just affect oceanic environments but it can affect local fisheries and other fresh water systems like lakes, rivers, and ponds. This is where human health concerns are a major issue. If our freshwater sources are contaminated due to methyl mercury it can cause neurological damage to locals who use the fresh water. It may eventually cause another large scale incident in the region.

Human health and other neurological issues caused by mercury poisoning is a huge concern for many and countries are working together to try and mitigate and remove this pollutant from coal-oil power plants and other sources of mercury emissions. According to Pirrone’s, “Dynamics of Mercury Pollution on Regional and Global Scales.”, mercury poisoning doesn’t only affect the brain and cause insanity and other types of brain damages, but also can cause kidney disease and major birth defects. Just like fish, bioaccumulation of mercury can occur in humans as well. We consume fish that can be poisoned and the more we consume the more mercury our bodies contain. Pregnant women who consume enough mercury can cause birth defects and other complications. (Pirrone et al., 2005, 7)

According to Leonardo Trasande mercury has a large economic impact; this economic loss is indirectly caused due to the affects mercury pollution can cause and what harm it can do to potential investments and capital (human resource). Trasande’s research states that there is an economic loss due to the effects of mercury and from the neurological damage mercury causes this means a loss in productivity. Economically speaking a loss in productivity can mean a loss of profit due to the lack of work coming from each individual who is affected from mercury poisoning. This research indicates that approximately 300,000 to 600,000 children have a cord blood mercury level greater than 5.8 μg/L. A cord blood level is the amount of blood in the umbilical cord at the time of delivery of an infant. His research showed that there are kids with higher level of mercury in the blood; this can cause these children to result in a loss of brain IQ. Transande approximates the cost of methyl mercury toxicity equals roughly 8.7 billion dollars and this is a result of the toxicity shown in infants. The loss of IQ in children can ultimately lower their production as they grow older which contribute to the 8.7 billion dollar loss from companies through human labor. Ultimately this is a result from coal-oil burning power plants which release high levels of mercury into our atmosphere which change into methyl mercury through natural processes in our environment. From an economic standpoint it is safe to assume that we are losing money in a long term investment, like human labor, and the results can eventually start to show signs in a loss in our profit in the future. (Transande 2005)


Based on data and information about mercury toxicity, the projected risks to human and animals will only increase until viable plans of actions take place in controlling the amount of mercury being dumped into our atmosphere and waters. With the Minamata Convention’s treaty being signed and implemented within 2013-2014 there are still large amounts of atmospheric mercury and by products being emitted and made. Batteries are still at the forefront for convenient on the go energy source. Many of our appliances today still run on batteries and this will not be phased out any time soon. With such a reliance on batteries there will inevitably be poor disposal of them through individual negligence. While society as a whole is taking the right steps in ridding ourselves from the use of alkali batteries; it will take a long time before we can full eliminate batteries as a whole and rely on other sources of on the go energy. However it is not all grim, even today we are beginning to see some of these changes with implementation of solar powered devices like calculators and the reuse of batteries for new objects.

While Coal and Oil are the most prominent and widely used resource for our energy, countries are beginning to branch out and have begun to use many different methods to provide homes with electricity and heat. Many of these energy sources are not extensively and exclusively used by any one country, it is already a step forward in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels to create a healthier environment. Developed countries like the U.S. and most of Europe have begun to use other sources to provide energy production. The EPA released information about the United States’ fuel mix which shows a significant decrease in our coal usage from 2000 to 2013. According to the data the U.S. used coal as 51% of their total fuel consumption; However by 2013 that number dropped to only 39%. Other sources of fuel have begun to show that reliance on coal will be soon a thing of the past with fuel sources like nuclear, wind, solar, and hydroelectric are beginning to become more favorable.



Natural Gas and the Future:

Recently the EPA and the United States government has introduced a new plan to deal with climate change although climate change and mercury pollution are not completely different issues there is something that connects to this change in switching to natural gas over coal-oil power plants. Like all burning fuel sources natural gas does emit mercury compounds, but the amount is so miniscule it is not considered to be important emission. This in turns will help slowly reduce the amount of mercury being emitted into our atmosphere from power plants. The EPA’s new law if passed would target existing power plants to switch over to natural gas in one year of the law being finalized. Those who do not comply will be forced to switch through federal actions. (Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, 2014) This is a great example of the government and environmental agencies working together to push for a more environmentally friendly source of energy. Switching over to natural gas will help reduce our impact on human and environmental health; even though their main objective is to push for a reduction in CO2 they are also reducing mercury as well.

Natural gas is the future resource for all energy production here in the U.S., because of its abundance we are starting to phase out the use of fossil fuels little by little. Natural gas has many benefits according to the EPA. A reduction of the amount of CO2 from 2249 to 1135 lbs/Mwh. Mercury is another emission that is significantly reduced because when recovering natural gas from the liquid constituents most of the mercury is already removed from the raw gas. According to this it makes the mercury insignificant when the natural gas is burned. (Pirrone et al., 2010, 5955) Natural gas has been studied and research is suggesting that natural gas is a cleaner way to produce energy than coal. This will help reduce all types of air pollutants while we find a way to make renewable energy more affordable and accessible to the masses.

What Have We Learned?

Mercury is an already existing toxic metal and through natural earth processes mercury is absorbed and broken down into methylmercury in the ocean. Fish eat and accumulate large amounts of mercury that can poison and harm human health. With new research and a government pushing for cleaner and more renewable resources the future is looking brighter to reducing mercury pollution in our atmosphere. Mercury can also create health issues in humans which can result to unproductive children. This causes an adverse effect to our economy due to a loss in productivity this will result in an economic fall. From the research data we see a down curve in the amount of mercury emission into our atmosphere from power plants and this curve will continue with the new laws and technologies implemented. With increasing interest in ratifying the Minamata Convention treaty mercury may soon be a thing in the past. This however will not change overnight and people need to come together to help raise awareness so our governments understand that we are serious when it comes to protecting our environment.

Conclusion – What Can We Do for the Future?

Mercury is a major problem and a pollutant that causes immense amount of harm to the health of our environment, animals and us. We may be taking steps to eliminate, regulate and control what kind of emissions we release in our atmosphere it is a slow process. The EPA, UNEP, USGS and many other environmental agencies are working together in implementing new types of technologies into our power plants to eliminate mercury emissions. We are also trying to educate and inform the public of what kinds of dangers mercury poses to the health of many living creatures and how easy it is to become affected from mercury poisoning. Minamata tragedy revealed a great problem in human health and the results from the disaster showed the population what kind of harm can be done from mercury. People affected from the Minamata disease were suffering from many different types of neurological damage that led them to insanity and death. While recent results seem to be lowering the amount of mercury in the atmosphere it is still not enough to change the current increasing trend of mercury emissions. Due to already existing coal power plants that have not implemented pollution control technologies and natural processes it may not be a while until mercury can be completely eliminated; however this does not mean trying to eliminate it now so that we can mitigate some of the damages while searching for the means to stop emissions of mercury was all for naught. Eventually if we all begin to follow new and improved standards for energy and find more renewable resources we may find a way to produce the amount of energy needed without having to emit harmful toxics into our atmosphere. Humans however are not the only ones affected by our polluting of mercury. Animals from all across are too in danger due to mercury toxicity. Mercury poisoning causes extreme neurological changes in these animals and reduces their chance of survival and may cause an inability to reproduce. This will cause a large scale extinction of fish and possibly birds. Worse case if things go unchanged it can cause a large scale chain reaction that, over many years will cause all animals to be affected by mercury.

As citizens and inhabitants of earth we are obligated to take care of it as well as clean up our own messes. We are already seeing changes in our environmental laws, protecting animals, our environment, and forging a new path to a sustainable way of life. While these things are being done we must also take part. Mercury can be reduce significantly just through word of mouth, acknowledgment and our own choices. If we ask and fight for a push in more renewable sources our governments will try and find new ways to create sustainability a possibility. We are already seeing a cultural shift in how we want to live and how we want to protect our environment, this is only just the first step. Together we can boycott mercury, eliminate our use of mercury products and even protest against mercury polluting factories. We can stop this problem before it poisons our future.


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