August 8 - PPG Industries announced late last week that it will replace the outdated mercury technology it uses to produce chlorine at its Lake Charles, Louisiana, plant with cleaner technology. The company said the facility will complete the transformation by mid-2007, reducing the number of chlorine plants in the United States using the mercury process to eight.
"Facilities that still use the mercury cell process should learn from this example," said Linda Greer, director of the Environment and Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "PPG's transformation of its Lake Charles facility shows that it is possible to be a leading chlorine producer without adding to the nation's toxic mercury problem."
Greer noted that the United States lags behind Western Europe and India, which have established phase-out deadlines for converting the highly polluting mercury cell chlorine plants. NRDC and Oceana have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to require the nine U.S. plants to switch to cleaner technology. They also have asked the plants to replace their mercury cell process. The plants collectively use about 100 tons of mercury annually to replenish the amount they lose during manufacturing, but they are unable to account for where the "lost" mercury goes.
Exposure to mercury can be particularly hazardous to pregnant women and small children. During the first several years of life, a child's brain is still developing and rapidly absorbing nutrients. Prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes. A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to mercury may also lead to heart disease.
After PPG's switch at its Louisiana facility, the remaining eight plants still using large quantities of toxic mercury will be a PPG plant in Martinsville, West Virginia; Olin plants in Augusta, Georgia, and Charleston, Tennessee; OxyChem plants in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Delaware City, Delaware; a Pioneer plant in St. Gabriel, Louisiana; a Vulcan plant in Port Edwards, Wisconsin; and an Ashta plant in Ashtabula, Ohio. (For more information on the plants, go to http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/chlor-alkali.asp or http://www.oceana.org/mercury.)
"PPG called this shift a good business decision," said Jackie Savitz, director of Oceana's Seafood Contamination Campaign. "Besides the major reduction in mercury releases, the company will save on electric, hazardous waste management and other expenses. This win-win decision should be duplicated by the eight other plants that continue to use 19th century, mercury-polluting technology to produce chlorine, including PPG's Martinsville, West Virginia, facility."
Mercury chlorine plants produce chlorine and caustic soda using 50-foot-long vats, which the industry calls "cells," filled with thousands of pounds of mercury. Chlorine is used mostly to manufacture PVC pipes and other plastics, and caustic soda is used to manufacture soaps, detergent, paper, plastics and other consumer products. The typical mercury chlorine plant has 56 cells, each holding about 8,000 pounds of mercury, which is used to conduct an electrical charge that extracts chlorine from salt. However, neither chlorine nor caustic soda manufacturing requires a mercury cell process. In fact, about 90 percent of the chlorine gas and caustic soda produced in the United States is made with cleaner, alternative technologies