The Problem: Volume, Toxicity, Cost
Mercury is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxic substance (PBT), which persists in the environment once released and bioaccumulates up the food chain. Products that contain mercury are often not labeled and many pounds of mercury are unknowingly and improperly disposed into landfills, incinerators and wastewater treatment facilities.
Mercury is highly conductive and exists as a liquid at room temperature. Mercury has been used in many household and commercial products such as electrical switches and relays, thermostats, fluorescent tubes and high intensity discharge lamps, dental amalgam, batteries, measuring instruments (barometers, thermometers, etc.), pharmaceuticals, paint produced before 1992, and laboratory and medical equipment.
The following resources contain more information on products that contain mercury: The Washington State Mercury Chemical Action Plan, the Mercury-Added Products' database, and Environment Canada's comprehensive description of products containing mercury.
Volume: The Oregon Environmental Council (PDF, 2001) estimates that between 3,600 and 10,600 pounds of mercury are released to air, water and land in Oregon each year. The Washington Department of Ecology (PDF, 2003) estimates that between 2,180 and 2,957 pounds of mercury are released a year and between 1,733 and 3,356 pounds are disposed of each year. In addition, there are many products still in use that contain mercury.
Toxicity: Mercury is poisonous to humans and other species, it affects the brain, kidneys and liver and can damage the central nervous system, especially during fetal and childhood development. Mercury vaporizes, moving between water, air and soil as a result of natural and human activities. Human exposure occurs most frequently by eating mercury-contaminated fish.
Cost: In an attempt to keep mercury and other toxic wastes out of the garbage, many communities in Oregon and Washington offer costly household hazardous waste programs. But these programs are only successful if the public uses them – at the same time, the more the public uses them, the more they cost. So government agencies are caught between running expensive, successful programs and having mercury in the waste stream.
Product Stewardship Solutions
Product stewardship solutions for products that contain mercury include sharing the costs of managing this chemical between manufacturers, government agencies and consumers and managing the chemical before it enters the waste stream. Solutions include:
- phasing out the use of mercury in products,
- redesigning products to contain less mercury,
- requiring manufacturers to disclose to the public that their products contain mercury,
- labeling products that contain mercury, and
- establishing product take back and retirement programs.
Consumers can voice their concerns by requesting mercury-free products from the manufacturer and by making informed purchasing decisions.
Design: Manufacturers can design products without mercury. Cost effective mercury-free products already exist: digital thermometers, alcohol (red bulb) thermometers, electronic thermostats, LED lamps, electronic switches, automotive switches and headlights, mechanical switches, medical devices and composite fillings.
Take Back: Manufacturers can take back products that contain mercury at the end of their lives. Many retailers offer mercury-containing lighting take back programs. Mercury thermometer exchanges have been conducted with pharmacies, hospitals and clinics in partnership with local governments. EPA, industry, and other stakeholders collaborated on the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program. Manufacturers fund the Thermostat Recycling Corporation, which facilitates the recycling of used, mercury-switch thermostats.
Legislation: Mercury-containing lighting product stewardship laws have been successfully passed in several states. Maine passed legislation in 2009 which requires manufacturers of mercury-added lamps to provide residents with free, convenient recycling. And Oregon passed legislation in 2012 setting standards for the amount of mercury that may be contained in general purpose lamps and prohibiting manufacturers from selling lamps in Oregon that exceed that amount. See the Mercury Legislation page for more information.