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Mercury Contamination Threat Gravitates into Outer Space

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 21 2018 (IPS) - The dangers of mercury contamination have escalated from the dental chair to the realm of outer space.

First, it was the hazardous use of mercury in dentistry, then in cosmetics, particularly skin-lightening creams, and now it is threatening to make its way into satellite propulsion systems.

A coalition of over 45 civil society organizations (CSOs) and environmental groups worldwide has warned against the use of mercury in satellite propulsion systems because it is “highly likely that most, if not all,” of the mercury emitted at the altitudes planned would find its way back– and eventually into the earth’s surface.

This has been demonstrated by many studies, including a UN report, on the long-range transport of mercury, says the coalition in a letter directed at Silicon Valley/satellite companies that are considering using mercury in thrusters to power satellites.

While details are hard to come by, it appears that because mercury is far less expensive than other propellants, there is considerable interest in its use in rocket thrusters for satellites, according to a recent article in Bloomberg.

“The bottom line is that if mercury is widely used to propel satellites, the resulting releases would significantly increase the global pool of mercury in the atmosphere and hydrosphere,” the coalition warns.

The letter, spelling out the dangers, has been addressed to Mike Cassidy, CEO and co-founder Ben Longmier, CTO and co-founder Apollo Fusion, Inc.; Greg Wyler, Founder and Executive Chairman, OneWeb; Will Marshall, CEO and Robbie Schingler, CSO, Planet Labs; and Gwynne Shotwell, President and CEO of Space X.

Michael Bender, International Coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group told IPS that while there maybe marketing ‘cost savings’ from mercury to propel satellites, Apollo fails to recognize the costs, risks and impacts of a new mercury source on human health and the environment.

“This flies in the face of not only U.S., but global efforts, to reduce mercury pollution,” he added.

The letter “strongly urges” the chief executive officers (CEOs) to publicly pledge to avoid mercury in satellite propulsion systems, as it poses a severe risk of contributing to a worsening global mercury crisis.

According to media reports, Apollo Fusion, Inc. is considering the use of mercury in its satellite propulsion systems and SpaceX, along with OneWeb and Planet Labs were mentioned as potential customers, although the latter two both deny it.

Over the past several decades, the U.S. and other governments around the world have spent billions to regulate and reduce mercury emissions from major sources and eliminate the use of mercury in products and processes where viable substitutes exist, says the letter.

“That’s because mercury circulates in the atmosphere and ultimately making its way into humans by moving up the aquatic food chain. Health agencies worldwide—including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and all 50 states (in the US) —warn pregnant women to avoid or limit consumption of certain fish primarily because of mercury exposure risks for the developing fetus.”

In a statement released December 20, Jane Williams, Executive Director of California Communities Against Toxics, said most of the mercury emitted from satellite propulsion systems will eventually find its way back to the earth’s surface according to numerous studies of the long-range transport of mercury.”

“If mercury is widely used to propel satellites, the resulting releases would significantly increase the global pool of mercury in the atmosphere and hydrosphere.”

“The Minamata Convention on Mercury seeks to reduce, and where feasible, eliminate all uses of mercury where technically-achievable mercury-free alternatives are available,” said Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, ZMWG International Co-coordinator at the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels.

“In the case of satellite propulsion systems, mercury-free alternatives have been available and almost universally used for decades.”

The second United Nations Conference of the Parties for the Minamata Convention on Mercury met in Geneva last month to further the Convention’s objective “to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.”

So far, over 100 countries (with the U.S. being the first) have ratified the Convention, which entered into force in August 2017.

Yet much more mercury reduction work is needed, because according to an upcoming UN report, global mercury emissions rose by 20% between 2010 and 2015.

There is already a global campaign against the use of mercury in dentistry.

Among other provisions, the Minamata Convention seeks to reduce, and where feasible, eliminate all uses of mercury where cost-effective, technically-achievable mercury-free alternatives are available.

In the case of satellite propulsion systems, mercury-free alternatives have been available and almost universally used for decades.

In the 1970s, NASA recognized the risks related to mercury propulsion systems in satellites and chose other options – even though NASA recognized mercury was cheaper to use, says the coalition.

“The mercury-driven propulsion technology developed and marketed by Apollo for satellites will have dire implications if widely applied.”

The letter also cites a recent media report which says ‘the amount of propellant in each [satellite] would depend on various factors…A case study on Apollo’s website that the company calls a “representative configuration” ideal for a low-orbit satellite would carry 20 kilograms of an unnamed propellant.”

“Multiply that by 1,000, and the constellation of satellites could use 20,000kg, or 20 metric tons of mercury, which would be released over the satellites’ estimated five to seven years in orbit. By comparison, the U.S. emits about 50 metric tons of mercury each year…”

As part of the upcoming review of Annex A and B to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, the coalition plans to raise the use of mercury as a propulsion fuel for possible inclusion in Annex A, the list of prohibited mercury-added products under the Convention.

“Therefore, we join with others in strongly urging the above aforementioned companies to pledge to avoid using mercury as a propellant in satellites,” the letter adds.

Meanwhile, there has also been a global campaign warning about the dangers of mercury use in the cosmetics industry – particularly in skin-lightening products.


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