Bush EPA cuts midnight deal with ADA: Undermining mercury pollution prevention


The following are excerpts from a report by The Mercury Policy Project / Tides Center entitled Midnight Deal on Dental Mercury: How the Bush EPA’s agreement with the American Dental Association undermines pollution prevention.


A hold over deal from the Bush administration is allowing tons of dental mercury pollution into the environment each year that could otherwise be prevented. The December 2008 agreement between the Bush Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Dental Association (ADA) and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) stands in stark contrast to pollution reduction initiatives now underway for most other mercury sources both at home and abroad.

This report examines the scope of the problem of mercury pollution from the dental sector, the ADA’s resistance to mandatory mercury pollution prevention strategies, opportunities to reduce mercury pollution, and the EPA’s lack of action to ensure effective dental mercury pollution prevention.

During the waning days of the Bush administration, EPA political appointees let the U.S. dental sector off the hook through a midnight deal with the ADA through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)1 that endorsed ADA’s voluntary mercury reduction initiative and forestalled a mandatory pollution prevention program. 

Dental amalgam is by far the largest source of mercury pollution to waste water treatment plants. According to EPA, “Mercury discharges [in wastewater] from dental offices far exceeded all other commercial and residential sources.” EPA cited an estimate in 2007 that 36 percent of the mercury reaching municipal sewage treatment plants is released by dental offices. Other investigations have put the figure closer to 50 percent.


the problem with this midnight deal is that it allows significant and preventable mercury pollution releases to the air and water. The deal was based on faulty information, left ADA in charge of developing baseline data before goals could be set, is being unduly delayed, and lacks openness, transparency and follow through voluntary educational outreach program might be justified for a de minimis pollution source, but is clearly not adequate for this significant source of mercury pollution.  By following the recommendations below in timely manner, EPA can achieve significant reductions in dental mercury pollution.


1) EPA should maintain an open and transparent process to address dental mercury. Non-governmental organizations should be recognized as full stakeholders in this process, be kept informed of all developments and allowed to participate in agency stakeholder meetings concerning dental mercury.

2) EPA should develop regulations to prevent mercury pollution from the dental sector. EPA should terminate the MOU and work with all relevant stakeholders to achieve significant reductions in dental mercury releases in a timely manner.

3) EPA should update its emissions inventory and regulate crematoria. EPA should update its outdated 2002 emissions inventory for dental mercury and correct its misrepresentation that the dental community has “made significant progress through voluntary efforts.” EPA should also regulate mercury emissions from cremation, given that this source is significant and growing.

4) EPA should establish guidelines for mercury discharges from dental facilities. EPA should establish effluent guidelines, including installation of amalgam separators and implementation of best management practices for all dental mercury discharges.

5) EPA technical documents should clearly state that pollution controls are required when mercury is a pollutant of concern. EPA should coordinate within the Water Program and with the states to ensure that technical guidance clearly states that mercury controls are required where mercury is a pollutant of concern consistent with the Clean Water Act.


In summary, it is clearly more cost effective to eliminate mercury from a waste stream prior to trying to address it at the end of the pipe or when it is being incinerated. According to a study conducted by the Quicksilver Caucus, initiatives in several states demonstrate that the dental sector is significantly reducing mercury pollution through implementing Best Management Practices, which include the installation and proper use of amalgam separators.

An example of such reductions is a publicly owned treatment plant in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area which has cut influent levels in half now that its dental clinics have installed amalgam separators. Another example is the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). MWRA operates the largest wastewater treatment plant in Massachusetts, servicing about 2.5 million people. When amalgam separator use increased to over 80%, mercury levels in MWRA sludge decreased by about 48%.62

In another example, in a rule current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson authorized when she was Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, it was noted that the annual cost per pound of mercury removed from dentists’ offices through the use of pollution control equipment (combination of best management practices and operation of amalgam separators) was far less than the cost per pound of capturing mercury from incinerator flue gases:

“…ranges from $5,100 to $7,700 (including costs associated with compliance with the BMP and recycling of captured material). In comparison, these cost estimates are far lower than the range of costs estimated by the Department for other types of facilities that are now required to reduce mercury emissions. For example, in the Department’s proposal for air pollution control regulations (see 36 N.J.R. 123(a)), which have since been adopted (see 36 N.J.R. 5406(a)), the Department estimated that the costs for the installation or upgrading of mercury emission controls by municipal solid waste incinerators, iron and steel manufacturing facilities, and coal-burning utilities would be in the range of $5,000 to $40,000 per pound of mercury reduced.”63

2010 Mpp Dental Mercury Midnight Deal Report

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