Mercury in Products

Mercury pollution is a serious threat to human health and the health of our environment. While the biggest source of mercury pollution is emissions from power plants, a significant amount also comes from mercury-containing products.

Due to the unique properties of mercury, it has been used in a wide variety of products. Some of the most common of these include thermostats, dental amalgams, lamps and light bulbs, relays and switches, batteries and measuring devices.

Fortunately, there are mercury-free alternatives for most mercury-containing products. Mercury reduction efforts seek to minimize mercury pollution by replacing the old mercury-containing products with new, mercury-free alternatives and preventing new mercury-containing products from being manufactured and sold.

Key Points

  • An estimated 117 tons of mercury were used in products sold in the United States in 2004, down 11% from 2001.[1]
  • An estimated 5,800 pounds of mercury are released in Wisconsin each year from commercial products.[2]
  • In 2000, 32% of mercury releases to the air were as a result of intentional use of mercury in products.[3]
  • Mercury is toxic even at very low levels; an entire lake can be contaminated by only 1 gram per year (one-fourth the amount in an average mercury-containing thermostat).[4][5]
Clean Wisconsin's Work

Clean Wisconsin and its allies have made great strides in the past decade in combating mercury pollution from products. This includes promoting the proper recycling of mercury-containing products and eliminating the unnecessary use of mercury in products through bans and phase-outs and encouraging the production of alternatives.

We worked with legislators on the state’s Mercury Products Bill, which was enacted in 2009 and bans the sale of all unnecessary products that contain mercury. We also successfully advocated for the Electronic Waste (E-Waste) Law in 2009, which requires electronics producers to offer convenient sites for recycling electronic waste like old computers, printers and products that contain other toxic substances, including mercury.

These efforts have all made a  difference for the amount of toxic mercury that enters our air and water each year. Clean Wisconsin continues to support legislation and programs to eliminate mercury in products around the state.

Clean Wisconsin Media and Materials

 

Questions and Answers

What products have mercury in them?

A variety of current products contain mercury, including electrical equipment such as switches and relays and many lights, including florescent, compact florescent, neon lights, and other lighting. Dental amalgam used in dental fillings is another major mercury containing product, which makes dental waste a serious threat to the environment and our health.

Additionally, many of the mercury-containing products produced before bans, phase-outs and alternatives (often called legacy products) are still found in households, offices and elsewhere. These include old batteries, paints, and thermometers, as well as older thermostats, meters and switches. More obscure items like old barometers, cosmetics and clocks can also contain mercury. There are also some items like dairy manometers that are banned in some states, but are still being used in others.[6]

Where does the mercury used in products come from?

Most of the world’s production of mercury comes from mining; state-owned mines in Spain, China, Kyrgyzstan and Algeria have dominated mercury production in recent years.[7] In the U.S. however, mercury hasn’t been mined as an industrial product since 1990 when the McDermitt Mine in Nevada closed. Instead, most of our mercury today in the U.S. is recycled from other mercury-containing products.[8]

Unfortunately though, there is still a lot of mercury that doesn’t get properly recycled. For example, between 2002 and 2011, it is estimated that less than one in 10 mercury-containing thermostats was recycled.[5] It is also estimated that in 2005 alone, a total of over 100 tons of mercury were released into the air, water and soil in the U.S. as a result of intentional mercury use in products.[3] 

How much mercury is in products in the U.S.?

Although many states participate in data collection programs such as the Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse, there is no national system in place to help track those products. This makes it difficult to estimate the total amount of mercury stored in mercury-containing products in the U.S., because states like Wisconsin that do not participate don’t have readily available information. A 2000 study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that over 4,000 tons of mercury were in private stocks of products in 1996.[9] However, mercury phase-outs and bans since then have likely reduced this amount somewhat as those products are disposed of and replaced with non-mercury-containing alternatives.

How do mercury containing products contaminate the environment?

Mercury-containing products can contaminate the environment throughout their lives. In fact, this contamination begins even before a product is ever used: the manufacturing of mercury containing products is a large source of mercury pollution.[3] Mercury can next enter the environment through spills, such as any time a mercury-containing product is broken. Finally, the disposal of mercury-containing products leads to additional contamination. Mercury escapes into the environment when products are crushed or broken for disposal, as well as getting into the air and water through leaching and other processes at landfills. Even worse, when products are incinerated with other municipal or medical waste, mercury is quickly and easily evaporated straight into the atmosphere, making incineration the largest source of mercury contamination to the environment from waste products.[10]

How much mercury goes into mercury-containing products?

Approximately 117 total tons of mercury were sold in products in the U.S in 2004. A breakdown of mercury going into products is shown below.[1]

In 2000, 32% of mercury releases to the air were as a result of intentional use of mercury in products; 2% of releases to water and 4% of releases to soil were also caused by intentional use of mercury in products that year.[3]

Switches and Relays

Mercury is a good conductor of electricity and because it is liquid at room temperature, it moves quickly when tilted. These qualities make it a useful material for use in a wide variety of electrical switches and relays found in homes, workshops, automobiles and much more. The NEWMOA website has detailed information on types of switches and relays and amounts of mercury used in them. About 30.8 tons of mercury contained in switches and relays was sold in the U.S. in 2007.[11][12]

Dental Amalgam

Dental amalgam is one of the most commonly used tooth fillings. It is made up of approximately half liquid mercury and half other powdered metals (tin, silver, etc). A large amount of mercury from dental amalgam contaminates the environment through improperly managed dental waste released into wastewater systems. 2008 EPA estimates show approximately 3.7 tons of mercury is discharged from dental offices to publicly owned treatment facilities each year in the U.S.[12]

Thermostats

Many old thermostats contain one or more mercury tilt switches (with about 3 grams of mercury per switch). Most modern thermostats do not use mercury, but the long lifespan of a thermostat results in a significant amount of mercury-containing thermostats still in use.[11] [12] [13]Fortunately, the energy-efficiency and convenience benefits of modern, programmable thermostats have raised the rate of retirement for mercury-containing thermostats somewhat. Those energy-efficiency benefits also cut down on mercury pollution by reducing the mercury emissions from power plants. Estimates on the number of mercury thermostats retired each year in the United States have ranged from approximately 2 million to nearly 7 million per year.[14] According to the U.S. EPA’s 2002 estimates, each year about 6 tons to 8 tons of mercury from discarded thermostats end up in solid waste facilities and 1 ton to 2 tons are released into the air nationwide.[15]

Light bulbs and lamps

Florescent light tubes can contain 4 mg to 50 mg of mercury each, and compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) can contain 4 mg to 8 mg each. This mercury is in the form of vapor that can be inhaled and can be dangerous when a bulb breaks. While this may be true, the large increase in energy efficiency caused by use of CFLs results in a significant reduction in the amount of mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. For this reason, if properly recycled, CFLs and other high efficiency bulbs are very valuable for reducing mercury contamination to the environment. [12] [13]

What achievements have been made in recent years to reduce mercury in products?

In the past decade, phase-outs, bans and replacements of mercury in products have made a significant dent in mercury containing products. For example, in most batteries produced after 1980, lithium and other metals have replaced mercury. Similarly, organic compounds have replaced mercury fungicides in latex paints produced since 1992, and Galistan and digital thermometers have generally replaced mercury ones in the home and elsewhere. Other products, like old chemistry sets, old light-up shoes and some other toys also contained mercury until it was banned in these products. Most new pesticides are also mercury-free now.[16]

What can I do to help reduce this source of mercury pollution?

There are many ways to help reduce the impact of mercury-containing products on our environment. For example:

  • Check to make sure products you purchase are mercury-free and purchase and use mercury-free alternatives to any existing mercury-containing products.
  • Dispose of thermostats, electronics and other products that may contain mercury correctly; take them to a recycling company.
  • Be careful to avoid breaking mercury-containing products like fluorescent light bulbs, and clean up any breaks or spills carefully.
  • Choose non-mercury-containing dental fillings, and make sure your dentist properly disposes of amalgam fillings.
  • Become aware and spread awareness about the threat of mercury in products.

What are some alternatives to common mercury containing products?

Some alternatives, such as lithium batteries and Galistan and digital thermometers, are already widespread and have largely replaced their mercury-containing counterparts. Sustainable Hospitals as well as the EPA’s database both provide valuable resources for finding alternatives to mercury-containing products.

How do I safely and effectively clean up broken light bulbs?

  • If a CFL or other fluorescent light bulb does break, take the right precautions for your health.
  • Reduce exposure to released mercury: Have all people and pets leave the room and let it air out for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outside. If possible, turning off air circulation systems to the rest of the building can also reduce exposure.
  • Clean up the broken bulb: Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or vapor and is not recommended unless all other clean-up steps have been tried.  Use stiff cardboard, sticky tape, damp towels and other things to collect broken glass and visible powder. Place all clean up materials and bulb fragments in a glass jar, plastic bag or other sealable container.
  • Properly dispose of waste: Place all bulb debris and cleanup materials (including vacuum cleaner bags) in an outdoor container; avoid keeping indoors. Check with your local government about recycling options or requirements.
  • If possible, continue to air out the room and leave heating/air conditions system shut of for several hours.[17]

How do I properly recycle and dispose of mercury-containing products?

DO NOT just throw away products that contain mercury; this can directly contaminate the environment and water sources. There are many options available for recycling and properly disposing of mercury containing products.  The United States EPA has created a database of specific products and disposal options, which you can find online. There are also a multitude of useful sites and recycling companies that can help you properly dispose of or recycle mercury and mercury-containing products.

Quick Facts
  • A 2000 study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that over 4,000 tons of mercury were in private stocks of products in 1996.[9]
  • Approximately 117 total tons of mercury were sold in products in the U.S in 2004.[1]
  • An estimated 112 tons of mercury were released into the air, water and soil in the U.S. in 2005 as a result of intentional use in products.[3]
  • In 2000, 32% of mercury releases to the air in the U.S. were as a result of intentional use of mercury in products.[3]
  • An estimated 5,800 pounds of mercury are released in Wisconsin each year from commercial products.[2]
  • Incineration of medical and municipal waste has been estimated to account as much as for 29% of total anthropogenic mercury emissions (as of 1997).[10]
  • Reduction efforts include federal bans on mercury additives in paint and pesticides, industry efforts to reduce mercury in batteries, increasing state regulation of mercury emissions sources and mercury in products, and state-mandated recycling programs.[10]
  • Today, most of mercury used in U.S. products comes from recycled sources.[8]
Wisconsin Data, Trends, and Legislation

As of November 2010, there is a ban on the sale of mercury-containing products in Wisconsin. This sales ban covers any products where alternatives are available, although the Department of Natural Resources can grant exemptions. The mercury-containing products banned from store shelves are:[18]

  • fever thermometers (unless prescribed by a practitioner)
  • manometers used in milking machines on dairy farms
  • thermostats
  • instruments or measuring devices, including barometers, flowmeters, hydrometers and other thermometers
  • mercury switches and relays
  • household items including, toys, jewelry, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and cosmetics

An estimated 5,800 pounds of mercury are released in Wisconsin each year from commercial products.[2] The largest contributions of mercury to the environment in Wisconsin in 2000 were:[19]

Product:

Pounds per year:

Thermostats

1,448

Dental office scrap to landfills

864

Thermometers

589

Fluorescent lamps

580

Dental office scrap to wastewater

556

Auto switches

240

In 2011, an estimated 78 pounds of mercury from thermostats were recycled in Wisconsin. This places us on par with our neighboring states, although the total collection rate of less than one in 10 offers room for improvement:[5]

Thermostats Collected in 2011

Total Thermostats Collected

Thermostats Collected
Per 10,000 Households

Pounds of Mercury

Change from
Previous Year

Michigan

16,650

16.8

131.7

+ 56.8%

Minnesota

12,507

23.6

88.9

– 5.8%

Illinois

7,749

6.0

58.5

+ 51.2%

Indiana

5,494

8.5

49.7

– 11.6%

Iowa

3,975

13.0

31.6

+ 67.2%

Wisconsin

10,146

17.8

77.8

– 2.4%

Current Law

Federal

At a federal level, the EPA has done a great deal to reduce and eliminate the manufacture and purchase of mercury-containing products in the United States. The Battery Act of 1996 phases out the use of mercury in batteries and provides for disposal of these batteries.[20][21]  In January 2003, American automakers voluntarily discontinued use of elemental mercury in multiple auto parts. In October 2007, the EPA published the final Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) regulating elemental mercury in certain auto parts.[22]  The Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 prohibits sale, distribution and export of elemental mercury as well as requires designation of storage facilities for elemental mercury generated in the U.S. This ban includes a ban on sale of mercury stockpiles held by the Department of Energy and Defense.[23]

Regional

At a regional level, the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration established a Mercury in Products Phase-Down Strategy. Formed as a part of this groups strategy to restore and protect the Great Lakes, this strategy works toward phasing out of the use of mercury and provide effective waste management.[17]

State

Wisconsin Act 44, enacted in October 2009, created Wisconsin Statue Chapter 299.49 and 118.07(4).  Both of these statutes regulate mercury-containing products. Statue Chapter 299.49 restricts the sale of fever thermometers, manometers, mercury-added thermostats, multiple instruments and measuring devices, mercury switches and relays, and a variety of household items (including toys, jewelry, cosmetics and other items). Statute Chapter 118.07 specifies health safety requirements in schools.  Subsection 4m of this statute heavily restricts the purchase or use of mercury or mercury-containing compounds and items in schools.

Wisconsin Act 50, also enacted in October 2009, amended Wis. Stat. 287.91 (2), 287.95 (1) and 287.97; and created 20.370 (2) (hr), 25.49 (1m), 287.07 (5), 287.09 (2) (ar), 287.13 (5) (i) and 287.17 of the statutes. The effect of these changes was to require “manufacturers of certain electronic devices to collect and recycle a specified amount of electronics from Wisconsin households, K-12 public schools and Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools each year. The law also bans many electronics from disposal in a landfill or incinerator beginning Sept. 1, 2010.”[24] For more information, see the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources webpage on electronics recycling.

Proposed Wisconsin Assembly Bill 424 (2013) would have a taken steps to reduce mercury pollution from mercury-containing thermostats in Wisconsin. Aong other things, it would have implemented a collection and recycling program for those thermostats coming out of service, and would have required contractors to remove mercury-containing thermostats for from buildings prior to demolition.

Local

Even at a local level, communities around Wisconsin are working to reduce the presence of toxic mercury in their area. Appleton, Wisconsin for example has a mercury reduction program.[25]  The city of Ashland, Wisconsin has had its own mercury-containing products ban since 2001.[26]

Cited Resources
  1. Trends in Mercury Use in Products (Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association and the Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse, June 2008)
  2. Mercury, Fish, and Aquaculture (University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, December 2006)
  3. Substance Flow Analysis of Mercury Intentionally Used in Products in the United States (Cain et al. 2007). Journal of Industrial Ecology 11(3):3-15.
  4. One Gram of Mercury Can Contaminate a Twenty Acre Lake: An Clarification of This Commonly Cited Statistic (Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse, 2004)
  5. Turning up the Heat II (Natural Resources Defense Council, Product Stewardship Institute, Clean Water Fund, and Mercury Policy Project, April 2013)
  6. Mercury Legacy Products (Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association)
  7. Global Mercury Assessment, 2002 (United Nations Environment Programme, Mercury Programme)
  8. Toxicological Profile For Mercury (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 1999)
  9. The Materials Flow of Mercury in the Economies of the United States and the World. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1197 (J Sznopek and T Goonan, June 2000)
  10. Mercury Study Report to Congress Volume VI (United States Environmental Protection Agency, December 1997)
  11. Mercury Products and Sources (State of Washington Department of Ecology)
  12. Mercury Consumer and Commercial Products (US EPA)
  13. Common Products Containing Mercury Fact Sheet (Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)
  14. Thermostat Stewardship Initiative – Background Research Summary, PSI, October 2004
  15. Mercury in Products Phase-Down Strategy (Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, June 2008)
  16. Mercury Mineral Commodity Summary (U.S. Geological Survey, 2012)
  17. Cleaning up a broken CFL (US EPA)
  18. Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, Safety and Buildings Division. “Mercury-containing devices may no longer be sold in Wisconsin.” Web <http://dsps.wi.gov/sb/SB-BuildingContractorMercury.html>. Accessed 2013.
  19. Recommendations for State Action on Mercury-Containing Products (Council on Recycling, May 2006)
  20. Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act (U.S. Government Printing Office)
  21. Mercury Laws and Regulations, Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996 (US EPA)
  22. Significant New Use Rule for Elemental Mercury in Certain Motor Vehicle Switches (US EPA)
  23. Mercury Laws and Regulations, Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 (US EPA)
  24. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Managing Electronic Wastes Destined for Recycling.” Publication WA 1473 (2010).
  25. Mercury Regulations Superior Wisconsin
  26. Mercury Reduction Program Appleton Wisconsin

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