Mercury has a long and
fascinating history. It is a
naturally-occurring element that enters the environment from rock formations and volcanoes. Humans have traded mercury commercially for over 2000 years. It was known to ancient Chinese and Hindus before 2000 BC and was found in tubes in Egyptian tombs dated from 1500 BC.
Mercury is an incredibly handy substance. It is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, it expands and contracts with temperature, has excellent conductivity, readily amalgamates with other metals, has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and boasts other useful characteristics.
For this reason, mercury is quite ubiquitous in consumer and industrial products, and therefore, also in the related waste streams and releases associated with the manufacturing, use, and disposal of these products.
Over the past century, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the amount of mercury entering the environment has increased fivefold due to human activities, ranging from coal burning to waste incineration to manufacture and disposal of common mercury-containing consumer products.
Furthermore, mercury is a potent human toxin, and does not dissipate in the environment. As a persistent bioaccumulative toxin (PBT), mercury builds up in the human body, and can have a range of negative health impacts even at very small concentrations. Mercury is especially dangerous for children. According to the EPA, 1 in 12 women of childbearing age in the US have blood concentrations of mercury high enough to place their children at some risk of adverse health effects, like reduced IQ and impaired eye-hand coordination.
Efforts to contain, reduce, and eliminate mercury in the environment are underway worldwide. Many governments are planning and implementing programs to reduce or eliminate mercury discharges and releases. To design effective reduction programs, it is important to quantify mercury inventories and flows within a defined region and gather baseline data.
In the Northwest, Oregon, Washington and King County recently developed estimated annual mercury discharges from various products and other sources. Washington’s estimate is that 3,800 - 5,000 pounds enter the state’s environment annually. Oregon’s estimated annual mercury inventories and discharges range from 3,600 - 10,000. King County’s estimates suggest a range of 500 - 1,900 pounds annually. (The wide range is due to levels of uncertainty of various multipliers and different methods used to estimate mercury totals.) The table on the next page lists estimated annual mercury quantities for a subset of some of the more quantifiable mercury sources identified.
Washington and Oregon have both identified mercury reduction as a top priority, and state and local governments across the Northwest are actively working to reduce mercury pollution. Exchanges and collections; legislative activities; business initiatives; partnering; and other P2 tools are being used to educate people about the implications of and the solutions to prevent mercury pollution.
Common Mercury Sources
1 End use applications for switches that may contain mercury are so varied that it is hard to quantify all types of mercury switches. An estimated 630 tons of mercury are in switches and relays in the US. Examples of potential end uses where mercury-added products are still in use and/or products are still manufactured with mercury include: vehicle hoods and trunks, bilge and septic tanks, control devices (for boilers, industrial equipment, thermostats and other temperature controls, alarms, level controls, etc.), computers and telecommunications equipment, appliance lids and doors, and more.
Exchanges and Collections
Mercury is distributed widely in consumer products. Based on data from EPA, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other sources, 2,000 pounds of mercury enters Oregon’s environment every year solely from consumer products (this figure doesn’t include additional point and non-point source mercury releases). Mercury is present in old thermometers, thermostats, computers, batteries, cars and more. Although this mercury contained in products is common, it is contained, so education, collection, and proper disposal will prevent mercury pollution.
Many mercury-containing products have mercury-free substitutes that work just as well. Regional governments are encouraging swaps for mercury-free products, or simply collecting mercury-containing materials to ensure proper disposal.
Mercury thermometer exchanges have been held across the region, including at least 6 Washington counties; Boise, Idaho; and the Portland area. A collection event in the Greater Portland area gathered 14,000 thermometers. These exchanges often involve partnering with drugstores and pharmacies. Individuals trade their mercury fever thermometers for mercury-free ones. A guide to conducting an exchange is available at www.noharm.org/library/docs/How_to_Plan_and_Hold_a_Mercury_Thermometer__3.pdf.
Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) conducted an exchange program to collect manometers (vacuum gauges used to monitor automated milking systems). The program was so successful it exceeded its original goals. Over 2 years, the program collected 78 pounds of liquid mercury and 73 pounds of mercury-contaminated debris, and farms learned of the potential dangers of mercury-containing manometers. Participating dairy farmers received a $300 rebate toward the purchase of new non-mercury gauges. For more information, contact Holly Cushman at 509-575-2724 or email@example.com.
Automotive switches have also been targeted with exchange events. As indicated in the “Mercury Sources and Discharges” table, they are a significant mercury waste stream. Oregon’s Mercury “Switch Out” project involved an array of partners: the state government, Portland P2 Outreach (P2O) Team, Northwest Automotive Trades Association, Oregon Environmental Council, Ecological Business Program, and over 100 participating auto repair shops across the state. Shops replaced about 1,500 switches with non-mercury alternatives for free in 2002.
King County, Washington; Boise, Idaho; and the Alaskan state government are all considering holding local collection events. Several governmental fleet managers at the city and county level are also considering fleet-wide switch outs.
Mercury Sources and Estimated Annual Discharges (in pounds)
Targeted collection, education and technical assistance can successfully locate and capture existing mercury stores. King County’s “Rehab the Lab” program improves chemical management in county school laboratories. Between 9/98 and 12/02, the program conducted 577 site visits and collected 600 pounds of mercury, in addition to over four tons of other high-risk chemicals. Read more at www.metrokc.gov/hazwaste/rehab/. Similar efforts in Northwest Oregon have yielded nearly 200 pounds of mercury from high school labs. Washington DOE’s “School Sweeps” program removed mercury, and other dangerous chemicals, from community and vocational colleges. See the project’s final report at www.ecy.wa.gov/pubs/97438.pdf.
Old computers are another source of mercury into the environment. Although the quantity present in each computer is quite small, recent surveys suggest that there may be millions of stored, unused computers in households across the Northwest. A recent survey of 700,000 Washington households found that 29% were storing a computer. These figures suggest that over three million computers could be awaiting disposal, in the Northwest alone.
Reuse and recycling programs are widespread in the region. Check out Alaska Green Star’s electronics exchange program at www.greenstarinc.org/electronics. In Washington, the Wilderness Technology Alliance accepts donated computers, refurbishes them, and donates them to public schools. Learn more about this organization at www.wildtech.org. Many other reuse programs are available; check out www.microweb.com/pepsite/Recycle/recycle_index.html for state-specific lists.
If you have “stone age”-era computers that are too old to be accepted for reuse, consider recycling them with a responsible recycler. In early 2003, a handful of computer recyclers across the country, including three in Seattle, committed to rigorous environmental and socially responsible recycling criteria. They pledged to keep hazardous e-waste out of landfills and incinerators, prevent the export of e-waste to developing countries, and to use free market labor (rather than prison labor) to dismantle or recycle e-waste. For more information, including a list of national signatories to the pledge, visit www.ban.org/E-waste/Pledge/Pledgefront.html.
Collection of spent fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) has become a priority. Estimates suggest that 75% of fluorescents are currently landfilled, contributing to mercury releases to the environment.
King County has promoted recycling of commercial fluorescent lamps since 1999 using outreach, education, and cash incentives, with the goal of achieving a 40% recycling rate. The Oregon Environmental Council launched a project to increase lamp recycling in the Portland area through education, promoting the use of low-mercury lamps, and proper disposal. The Zero Waste Alliance is developing a pilot project to enhance the convenience of recycling of CFLs, such as by establishing collection points at retail stores. For more details, contact Alex Keith at 503-279-9383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
National regulatory and recycling information is available at www.lamprecycle.org. The site was developed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association to help educate lamp users about the issues, and it provides lamp recycler information for each state in the nation.
Spent fluorescents from homes can be sent to these recyclers, or often are accepted by household hazardous waste programs.
Household Hazardous Waste
Household hazardous waste collection points often accept mercury-containing products, such as thermostats, CFLs, and old paints, even when a specific collection event is not ongoing. For more details, contact your local program.
Do They Really Prevent Pollution?
During the energy crunch over the last couple years, fluorescent lamps have been promoted as energy-saving and environment protecting. But they also contain mercury, which has its own host of serious environmental issues. So, is it really “environmentally correct” and P2 to use them? All the sources say a resounding yes.
Fluorescents use 70% less electricity which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from energy production. Fluorescents typically contain much less mercury than a mercury fever thermometer. As long as they are properly disposed of at the end of their life, they are the superior environmental choice.
Make them last!: The Lighting Design Lab recommends turning off lamps when they will not be needed for 15 minutes or more. This saves energy, and extends the life of the lamp. Excessively turning lamps on and off, such as in a motion detector light, will shorten bulb life and is not recommended.
Proper disposal: Check with your local household hazardous waste specialist, or for commercial lamp disposal, see www.orcouncil.org/brochures/LampRecyclingBrochure.pdf.
Many lighting products contain mercury, including fluorescent tubes (“T8s” and “T12s”), compact fluorescents (CFLs), tungsten, certain neon colors, high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs and ultraviolet (UV) bulbs. HID bulbs are common in security lighting and ‘bluish’ headlights in some cars. In addition, the tiny fluorescents used in some interior car lights and flat screen computer displays also contain mercury. Tungsten, neon, and UV lights have specific uses, but are less prevalent.
Fluorescent tubes contain between 4 - 40 mg of mercury, depending on the manufacturer, while compact fluorescents contain about 4 mg. Tungsten, HIDs and other bulbs contain between 8 - 300 mg per lamp.
Per best estimates from the Association of Lamp and Mercury Recyclers, only 20 - 25% of lamps are recycled, meaning 75% are landfilled, adding an unnecessary mercury burden to the environment. In Washington, roughly 12,000,000 lamps are retired each year by businesses and individuals, translating to only about 3,000,000 lamps recycled.
Ecolights Northwest (www.ecolights.com), in Seattle, Wash., is one of two lamp recyclers in the Northwest and receives lamps from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and Montana. They process 1.5 - 2 million tube fluorescents annually along with a smattering of other mercury-bearing lamps, including tiny fluorescents from their electronics recycling division.
Their state of the art equipment crushes and separates lamps into component parts. Glass is recycled as aggregate, aluminum endcaps are sold to metal buyers, and mercury phosphor powder is shipped to a retorter where the mercury is purified for reuse. Ecolights has the capacity to double the annual volume processed, and actively supports agencies in efforts to increase recovery rates.
Many governments have taken legislative measures to better control mercury-containing products, and to phase out their use. Nonprofit groups, such as the Oregon Environmental Council and Washington Toxics Coalition, have participated in this effort. Already this year, 65 mercury bills have been introduced in 24 states, including Oregon and Washington. Other legislative tools that have been used in the Northwest include executive orders, resolutions, labeling requirements and sales and disposal bans.
Oregon’s Governor proclaimed an Executive Order in 1999 that requires DEQ to begin a process to phase PBTs, including mercury, out of the state by 2020.
To comply with this order, the Oregon state government passed the Mercury Reduction Act of 2001 (HB 3007) which significantly reduces the use and disposal of mercury in the state by phasing out the sale of mercury-containing thermostats, thermometers, novelty products, and cars with mercury light switches. It also requires the removal of auto mercury light switches prior to crushing and recycling. This could prevent 800 pounds of mercury releases annually. See the Act at www.leg.state.or.us/01reg/measures/hb3000.dir/hb3007.b.html or a fact sheet at www.orcouncil.org/pollution/Mercury Bill Fact Sheet.pdf.
Washington also has enacted state legislation to combat mercury pollution. Congress appropriated funding for the Departments of Ecology and Health to jointly develop a PBT strategy. They recently completed the Mercury Control Action Plan. This legislative session, policymakers are considering sales bans on some mercury-containing products and legislation to hold manufacturers financially accountable for proper disposal of e-waste.
A detailed list of state legislation under consideration across the country is available at www.mercurypolicy.org (see 3/11/03).
The City of Seattle adopted a resolution last year that declares pollution prevention of persistent toxics to be a high priority. It commits the city to developing purchasing criteria that differentiate PBT-containing or producing items from their alternatives. Specific to mercury, the city is analyzing its purchasing of mercury-containing batteries, fluorescent tubes, auto switches, and street lamps.
Labeling requirements are another common policy tool. Oregon’s Act includes them, Washington’s bill under debate includes them, and they have been implemented elsewhere. Vermont instituted labeling requirements for mercury-containing lamps several years ago. These requirements are responsible, at least in part, for recent announcements by lamp makers that they will begin printing information about proper disposal on lamps and packaging sold nationwide.
Sales and Disposal Bans
Sales bans on mercury-containing items are being used to prevent mercury pollution and reduce eventual disposal issues.
Oregon’s Act targets the sale of mercury thermometers, novelty products and cars with mercury light switches. The Seattle-King County Board of Health is considering banning the sale of mercury fever thermometers in the area. As of November 2002, there were seven state laws and 15 local ordinances that banned or restricted the sale of mercury fever thermometers.
In addition to sales bans, governments are also introducing disposal bans to keep mercury-containing products out of general waste and prevent it from being landfilled.
Many fluorescent lamps are managed under the Universal Waste rule, and medium and large businesses must recycle or dispose of lamps through a licensed hazardous waste disposal company, not at the landfill (specific laws vary across states and local jurisdictions).
In terms of other products, Snohomish County no longer accepts computers, computer monitors, televisions, and computer circuit boards for landfill disposal. The “Take It Back Network” provides information about recycling alternatives that keep mercury and other hazardous materials out of the general landfill. Learn more at www.co.snohomish.wa.us/publicwk/solidwaste/programs/takeitback.
King County solid waste facilities no longer accept computer monitors and color TVs from commercial sources. The county is providing recycling resources and encouraging proper disposal of these items. Check out the reuse and recycling database at www6.metrokc.gov/dnr/swd/Recycle/Recycle.asp.
On the same theme, but in a different media, King County is the nation’s first jurisdiction to require dentists to meet local discharge limits for mercury. Starting in July 2003, dentists will have to have installed amalgam separators at their offices to reduce mercury pollution that has traditionally been found “downstream” at local water treatment plants. More details can be found at dnr.metrokc.gov/wlr/indwaste/dentists.htm.