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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, today I reintroduce legislation initially inspired by an indepth report published in late 2005 by the Chicago Tribune that highlighted the extent of mercury contamination in the fish eaten by the American people.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause serious developmental problems in children, ranging from severe birth defects to mental retardation. As many as 630,000 children born annually in the U.S. are at risk of neurological afflictions related to mercury. In adults, mercury can cause problems affecting vision, motor skills, blood pressure and fertility. As many as 10 percent of women in the U.S. of childbearing age have mercury in their blood at a level that could put a baby at risk.

Sampling conducted by the Tribune showed surprisingly high levels of mercury concentrations in freshwater and saltwater fish purchased by Chicago area consumers, fish like tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, and walleye. The Tribune also reported on how existing programs at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have failed to adequately test and evaluate mercury levels in fish.

For all Americans, especially pregnant women and other at-risk groups, there are risks to eating fish with high mercury levels. That is why we need to work harder to get at the root causes of mercury contamination. In the short term, some have proposed strategies that include eating less fish, or issuing consumption advisories, or printing labels on tuna cans, or posting placards at the supermarket. Each of those strategies have their respective merits, but if we are really serious about making fish safer to eat, we need to actually reduce the amount of mercury in fish, and that means reducing the amount of mercury used in industry.

When policymakers focus on addressing mercury sources, often coal-fired power plants and incinerators are at the top of the list. I think it is important that we not overlook other sources, however, where new policies could yield notable mercury reductions in the short term using methods that are achievable and affordable. One such source is the chlor-alkali industry.

Chlor-alkali facilities manufacture chlorine gas and caustic soda, important chemicals that serve as the building blocks of many of the products and plastics essential to modem everyday life. For more than 100 years, mercury has been a key component in the chlorine process. Since 1974, however, about 115 plants worldwide have converted to better technologies such as membrane and diaphragm cells. Today in the U.S. more than 90 percent of the chlor-alkali industry has switched from using mercury to using these alternative catalysts. Moreover, of the 8 plants in the U.S. that still use mercury, 3 are in the process of stopping. The remaining 5, however, have made no such commitment. It is also worth noting that in 2005 alone, the 5 uncommitted mercury using plants released more than 4,400 pounds of mercury into the air, on average four times the average mercury releases of a standard coal-fired power plant.

The time has come to finish these upgrades and end the use of mercury in the chlor-alkali process, especially since these remaining plants rank among the largest mercury emitters in their respective states.

The bill I introduce today, the Missing Mercury in Manufacturing Monitoring and Mitigation Act, or M5 Act, prohibits using mercury cells in the chlorine or caustic soda manufacturing process by the year 2012. The M5 Act also puts procedures in place by mid-year 2008 to track and report mercury input and output in the chlor-alkali industry. The evidence suggests that between 2000 and 2004, the industry could not account for more than 130 tons of mercury. The EPA calls this ``an enigma.'' The M5 Act addresses this enigma by tightening up mercury tracking requirements. My bill also establishes an advisory committee to study and recommend methods for transfer and long-term storage of mercury from closed or closing facilities. And the bill directs the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register to conduct a health assessment at those facilities that still use mercury after 2008.

It is important to point out that there are alternatives to mercury in the chlor-alkali process, more than 100 plants worldwide have converted to better technologies. We also know that these alternatives are not cost-prohibitive. Statistics compiled in a recent report by the group Oceana demonstrate that conversion costs are substantially similar to the cost of the continued use of mercury, for example, the cost of waste disposal, treatment, monitoring, fines, and higher energy consumption associated with using the old technology.

If there were simply no alternatives to mercury for this industry, if other technologies had not been proven on a commercial scale, or if switching from mercury was simply too expensive, then I could understand if there were strong arguments against this legislation. But here we actually have a situation where mercury use could actually be phased out within a rather short period of time, improving the health of children and families. So the choice is whether we want to wait another decade and hope that improvements happen, or whether we want to ensure that mercury is phased out beginning today. I hope my colleagues will choose the latter, and I urge their support of this bill.


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise today to reintroduce the Hospital Quality Report Card Act, a quality-focused initiative that will actively engage all relevant stakeholder groups--patients, providers, administrators, and payers--and increase availability of information about the quality of health care services in local hospitals and health systems.

We know that overall performance in our Nation's hospitals can vary tremendously, and is mediocre at best in many institutions. The academic literature has documented serious issues in health care quality for treatment of a number of conditions, including cardiac arrhythmias, hip replacements, and alcohol dependence to name just a few. But discussions of health care quality are not limited to academic exercises; patients and their families experience medical errors and substandard hospital care every day. Just last month, the L.A. Times reported an extreme case involving Ms. Edith Isabel Rodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez, a 43-year old American woman with a perforated bowel, suffered an excruciating and possibly preventable death, after lying unattended on the floor of an emergency room for 45 minutes. Our Nation's hospitals can do better and must do better.

One step towards improving health care quality is collecting, analyzing, and reporting on health care quality, using measures that have been developed, validated, and accepted by the medical community. Not only will such measures assist hospitals by identifying problem areas and facilitating monitoring for improvement, but the transparency through public reporting will also help consumers and payers make informed decisions about where to obtain health services.

The Hospital Quality Report Card Act grants the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to collect hospital information related to the staffing levels of nurses and health professionals, the accreditation of hospitals, the quality of care for vulnerable populations, the availability of specialty services and intensive care units, hospital acquired infections, measures of crowding in emergency rooms, and other indicators of quality care. This information--focused on health care effectiveness, safety, timeliness, efficiency, patient-centeredness, and equity--will be electronically accessible to the public. The report card initiative builds upon current work at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as initiatives in a number States including my own home State of Illinois. I am proud to report that I was the primary sponsor of the Illinois Hospital Report Card Act that passed into law in 2003 and took effect in 2004.

Our Nation's reputation of having one of the best health care systems in the world needs to be restored, and this won't happen until we can assure the American people that our hospitals are doing a better job offering top-notch quality care. The Hospital Quality Report Card Initiative will help by expanding and reporting quality measurement, which will provide an incentive for hospitals to do better and valuable information to patients and consumers. I ask that you support the Hospital Quality Report Card Act and help my efforts to pass this legislation.


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