Avoiding Toxic Mercury

How to Minimize the Threat of Mercury

  • Jessica Snyder Sachs
  • Dec 01, 2002
SOMETHING SHINY caught my eye when I glanced at the old thermostat the repairman left behind. I was about to toss it in the trash, when I realized that it contained a glass bulb filled with mercury. I had done enough reading to know that I had enough toxic metal in my hand to contaminate a large lake, rendering its fish unsafe to eat for years, if not many decades, to come. The challenge would be to safely and responsibly dispose of it. Unfortunately, thermostats are just one example of the scores of mercury-containing products found in a typical American home. Few bear any indication of their status as hazardous materials. Some contain enough mercury to pose an immediate danger if they break and release toxic vapors. All of them present homeowners with the same challenge I faced: How do you dispose of these items safely so the mercury doesn't get into the environment and return in a more dangerous form inside a can of tuna or bite of sushi?

As for the food products containing mercury that are already in our pantries and refrigerators, consumers today have good reason to think hard about what kinds of fish they're feeding their family, and in what quantity (see "Dietary Cleanup" box). "We need to look at the mercury problem through two lenses," explains Felice Stadler, national policy coordinator for NWF's Clean the Rain Campaign. "The first lens concerns what we can do to minimize our exposure today. The other lens concerns identifying sources of mercury so we can minimize environmental contamination and reduce exposure through tomorrow's food supply."

Though mercury occurs naturally in the environment-in rocks, soil, oceans and air-only in modern times has it become a pervasive and pernicious threat to health. Indeed, scientific research indicates that the rate at which mercury enters our food chain has increased considerably in recent decades.

What makes this dangerous is mercury's extreme neurotoxicity. That is, its devastating effects on the brain and nervous system. The "mad hatters" of Victorian times suffered from mercury poisoning when they rubbed the metal into felt cloth to preserve it. Mental confusion, trembling and eventually death can result from inhaling the vapors of this liquid metal, which readily evaporates at room temperature. As the dangers of mercury exposure became known in the early 20th century, acute poisonings became rare. But they still occur, as when children find and play with mercury or when someone eats large quantities of contaminated fish over a relatively short period of time.

Of far greater concern today is the harm that is done to developing fetuses, infants and young children exposed to even low levels of methylmercury. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the amount of methylmercury (an especially problematic form) consumed by pregnant women in this country results in at least 60,000 children born at risk of developmental harm. The risk of permanent injury continues for at least the first five years of life, as the brain and nervous system continue to develop and children consume mercury through breast milk and food.

The vast majority of methylmercury in our diet turns up in large, commercially caught fish, such as tuna and swordfish, and in smaller species pulled from contaminated waters by recreational anglers. Scientists have traced the source of the contamination primarily to coal-burning power plants, certain industrial processes and the incineration of mercury-containing products.

Once mercury enters the planet's water cycle as a pollutant, bacteria convert it into methylmercury, which bioaccumulates (or concentrates) in the tissues of organisms that consume it. So it occurs at greater concentrations as it moves up the food chain. In top predators such as tuna and swordfish, methylmercury can be present at concentrations 10,000 to 100,000 times that found in surrounding waters.

The good news is that mercury-free alternatives now exist for many of the metal's uses in household and automotive products. This has encouraged a handful of states to bar the sale of easily replaced mercury devices such as thermometers and switches. Only two, Vermont and Minnesota, require manufacturers to label mercury-added devices. Until such labeling requirements become widespread, ferreting out mercury in the home takes some detective work. Understanding the metal's useful properties can help you recognize where it's likely to be found.

Thermometers and thermostats: Elemental mercury expands and contracts evenly with changes in temperature. So it has long been used in glass thermometers and the mercury-bulb switches in thermostats. Mercury switches can likewise be found inside heating elements that shut off when they reach a set temperature-such as those inside clothing irons and older microwave ovens. The most easily recognized nonmercury alternatives have digital displays-an indication of electronic sensors.

Vapor lamps: Fluorescent, neon and high-intensity-discharge (HID) light bulbs contain mercury vapor. Fluorescents more than make up for their added mercury by conserving energy and so reducing mercury emissions from coal power plants. Until mercury-free alternatives are available, the best options are low-mercury bulbs as long as they are disposed of properly; they are recognized by their green end caps.

Batteries: Over the last 20 years, U.S. manufacturers have reduced the amount of mercury in household batteries by 99 percent. Small amounts can still be found in "button" batteries, such as those used in watches and hearing aids; as a result, they should be properly disposed.

Barometers and blood-pressure gauges: Mercury expands and contracts with pressure. So it is used in conventional barometers and blood-pressure gauges. Indeed, a typical home blood-pressure device contains a whopping 1.5 pounds! Mercury-free alternatives include "Bourdon tube" barometers and "aneroid" blood-pressure gauges.

Old pesticides and latex paint: Mercury's toxicity makes it an effective preservative and pesticide. Fungicides and herbicides produced before 1994 and latex paint made before 1992 release significant amounts of mercury vapor during application. Though the sale of such items is now phased out, countless half-used containers remain in America's garages and basements.

Toys and novelties: Old children's chemistry sets (1960s vintage or earlier) often contained vials of liquid mercury. Until recently, athletic shoe manufacturers used mercury in the blinking heels of light-up sneakers. Toy importers still occasionally sell novelties that contain a drop of mercury that rolls through a maze.

Tilt switches: Mercury conducts electricity and flows when you tilt it. So it is used in switches that stop motors or turn on lights when you open a lid. Think washing machines, top-loading freezers, car hoods and trunks. Alternatives include electronic sensors and nonmercury mechanical switches (check with the manufacturer). In 1995, the International Automobile Manufacturers Association announced that it had completely eliminated mercury switches from foreign vehicles. U.S. carmakers pledged to do the same by 1997, but have been slow to fulfill their promise, says Clean Car Campaign spokesman Dean Menke.

More mercury in cars: Contrary to their pledge, U.S. automakers have actually expanded the use of mercury in cars, says Menke, who calculated more than 10,000 pounds of mercury in model-year 2000 passenger vehicles. This poses a colossal problem as neither manufacturers nor car recyclers want to take responsibility for safe disposal. Until they do, Menke advises car shoppers to ask for evidence that light switches, headlamps, antilock brakes, convenience lighting and active ride-control systems have been manufactured without mercury.

Disposal: Mercury sealed inside solid devices poses no immediate danger to the user. The key is proper disposal at the end of the product's useful life, followed by replacement with mercury-free alternatives when possible. (The Clean Car Campaign's national "Switch-the-Switch" exchange program, for example, enables vehicle owners to exchange mercury for nonmercury light switches. More information can be found at www.cleancarcampaign.org.)

Mark as "containing mercury" any device you suspect may contain the metal. Then contact your local solid waste department to determine your disposal options: Many communities have disposal sites or neighborhood pickup dates. Collected mercury in most cases is sent to recycling facilities where it is then reused in new mercury products. Environmental advocates are working on national policies to get mercury used in products or in manufacturing completely out of circulation.

Should a mercury spill occur in your home, don't panic. Elemental mercury does not readily absorb through the skin or even the digestive tract, says Lynn Goldman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The health danger is vapor inhalation. So in the case of a small spill-say, a broken thermometer or thermostat bulb-move children out of the room and open doors and windows to ventilate. Never try to sweep or vacuum mercury. Doing so can contaminate an entire building by scattering toxic particles through the air. Use adhesive tape or an eyedropper to collect small amounts and seal them in a plastic container. Dispose of contaminated clothing, carpeting and upholstery in sealed plastic bags. Place contaminated materials outside and inaccessible to children and animals, until they can be disposed as hazardous waste. In the case of a large spill, such as that from a blood-pressure gauge, leave the area immediately, notify your local public health agency and call your physician for possible treatment.

NWF recently published a guide to products that contain mercury, alternatives available and local actions being taken to remove mercury products from the marketplace. For copies, contact Kathleen Eales at 734-769-3351, eales@nwf.org, or see www.nwf.org/greatlakes. New Jersey writer Jessica Snyder Sachs is a regular contributor to this magazine.

Dietary Cleanup 
Sadly, what should be one of the most healthful foods in the American diet has become potentially one of the most dangerous. Persistently high mercury levels in streams, lakes and oceans render many kinds of fish unsafe for children and women of childbearing age. Currently, 43 states have advisories against eating some or all fish caught from local waters. But don't count on finding the warnings publicized or posted. Check with your state environmental agency before eating any recreationally caught fish, and check for new advisories each season.

As for fish from the grocery store, in 2001 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised that young children and women of childbearing age not eat shark, swordfish, mackerel and tilefish because such fish were found with levels of methylmercury greater than 1 part per million (ppm). That the FDA did not warn against tuna proved controversial. Though most tuna falls below the 1-ppm mercury limit, Americans tend to eat more of it.

Methylmercury studies by the EPA suggest that levels as low as 0.25 ppm may be unsafe for consumption. In recent tests by Consumers Union, canned tuna averaged about 0.31 ppm; light tuna averaged about 0.16 ppm. Based on these test results and EPA guidelines, a 132-pound woman should eat no more than 9 ounces of light tuna or 5 ounces of white tuna a week. A 44-pound child should eat no more than a third that amount. (This assumes that no other fish is consumed by the child during that time.) The FDA recommends eating no more than 12 ounces of cooked fish per week. Far less mercury turns up in smaller commercially caught fish such as flounder, haddock, butterfish, herring and sardines.

Mercury in Medicine 
Medical studies have not documented any harm from the mercury used in amalgam dental fillings, but a problem nevertheless exists with disposal of mercury wastes by dentists. Currently, no federal requirements mandate safe disposal techniques. Research also has not uncovered problems resulting from the trace amounts of mercury preservatives (thimerosal, phenylmercuric acetate and phenylmercuric nitrate) used in some vaccines, nasal sprays and contact lens solutions. However, mercury-free options exist for all of these products. An increasing number of physicians and dentists recommend using these alternatives. In particular, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service have recommended manufacturers remove thimerosal from all child vaccines. Though most manufacturers have responded positively, old supplies of certain vaccines exist, so ask your physician before having your children vaccinated.

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Does Hazardous Mercury Still Lurk in Your Home?

You've disposed properly of the old latex paint and pesticides that were collecting dust in the garage. You've made the switch to digital-display thermostats and replaced the mercury tilt-switches in your washing machine with electronic sensors. You know better now than to throw a fluorescent light bulb in the garbage with regular trash, and have likely sought out a nearby hazardous waste or recycling center. So does this mean you have covered all of your bases? It's a good start-but believe it or not, harmful mercury-containing products may still be lurking in your home.

Recently, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) published a Mercury Products Guide which gives consumers the latest information on products that contain mercury and provides them with critical tips for safeguarding their families and the environment. Below is a short list, pulled from NWF's new guide, of mercury-containing household items and their competitively priced alternatives. Again, knowing the properties that make mercury useful in such products can help you pinpoint where there might be a threat.

There are two different forms of mercury in common household appliances: tilt switches and flame sensors. Electronic alternatives to these switches and sensors are available for each product.

Central air conditioning—Chose models with non-mercury-containing electronic switches.

Steam irons with automatic shut-off—If you want this added safety feature, chose a model with a timed shut-off, which does not contain mercury. Other irons with an automatic shut-off feature likely use mercury.

Curling irons with automatic shut-off—See above.

Portable phones with mute/privacy switch—Phones with this feature often contain mercury. To avoid this, choose phones without the mute option; or, if the phone has a mute feature, check to make sure it is electronically operated.

Gas furnaces—Choose a gas range with an electric ignition instead of a mercury flame sensor.

Grills—Choose a grill with electric rather than mercury flame sensors.

To learn more about mercury-free alternatives and how to recycle products with mercury, you can download NWF's report from www.nwf.org/greatlakes.

In the end, if you are still unsure whether a product contains mercury or not, check with the manufacturer. For more information on how to dispose of your mercury-containing products, contact your local solid waste management department. You can also consult one of the following Web sites for more information on companies that recycle or dispose of mercury in your area:

Recycler's World 
Global Recycling Network

Written by Amy Leinbach

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