Another Major Source of Mercury Pollution: Light Switches in Scrapped Cars

The least known major source of mercury pollution in the United States may be releases from scrapped automobiles. Until recently, automakers used mercury in several components, including switches that turn on a light when car owners open a hood or trunk. (The liquid mercury flows when the hood or trunk is opened, and completes an electrical connection to illuminate the light.) Historically, automakers used approximately 12 tons of mercury per year in car switches. Although ball bearings can replace mercury in convenience lighting, automakers did not stop using mercury in these components until 2002.

Mercury escapes into the air from automobile switches when older cars are crushed and melted down, and the amount of mercury in car switches is substantial. A recent study by the state of Michigan, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and others found that nearly half the cars in the state contained a switch holding approximately 0.8 grams of mercury apiece. The Clean Car Campaign, a coalition of groups that has championed the cause of getting mercury out of automobiles, reported in 2001 that an estimated 200 tons of mercury was contained in cars then in use. (Click here for details.) Tons of this mercury will spew into the air out of iron and steel plant stacks over the next 10 or so years, when these cars are junked and recycled into new steel.

Michigan found that removing the switches takes one to two minutes per car on average without extensive expertise or training. But despite the fact that scrap yards routinely remove components in vehicles and drain fluids and oil to reduce pollution, they do not remove mercury switches, partly because they are not compensated for taking them out.

In some states auto light switches are the largest source of mercury pollution. A federal pollution database, the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), and a recent report from the state of New Jersey found that iron and steel foundries are the single largest mercury emitter in the state of New Jersey, at about 1,000 pounds per year. Coal-fired power plants in the state came in second, emitting about 700 pounds annually.

Mercury is a Major Public Health Threat

Car switches may each contain less than a gram of mercury, but it takes very little to cause harm. Like lead, mercury damages the brain and nervous system. Mercury exposure can lead to learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and mental retardation. The effects of prenatal and infant mercury exposure include the inability to recall and process information, and impaired visual and fine motor skills. Mercury exposure also can affect an adult's nervous system, causing nerve cell death and scarring in select areas of the brain.

Children at early stages of development are at most risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and most international science agencies. Based on recent estimates, approximately one in six women of childbearing age in the United States may have mercury in their blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus. Thus, some 630,000 newborns may be threatened every year by neurological impairment from exposure in-utero. Infants and children also are endangered because their developing brains are extremely sensitive to mercury, which they can ingest from breast milk and contaminated fish. Meanwhile, elevated mercury levels in adults can adversely affect male fertility and blood pressure, and may contribute to heart disease.

Americans are primarily exposed to mercury by eating certain fish. Industrial facilities emit the chemical into the environment, and a particularly dangerous form of it -- methylmercury -- accumulates in the tissue of large predator fish, such as shark, swordfish and tuna.

Mercury pollution has contaminated approximately 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries and wetlands -- 30 percent of the national total -- and more than 473,000 miles of streams, rivers and coastlines. In 2002, 44 states issued warnings about eating mercury-contaminated fish, a 63 percent jump from 1993, when 27 states issued such warnings. Nineteen states have issued statewide advisories for mercury in freshwater lakes and rivers, and 10 states have issued advisories for canned tuna.

Federal Policy Too Weak to Protect Public

There are several factors that underscore the need for prompt action to address this problem: mercury's threat to public health, the significant contribution that mercury switches make to nationwide pollution, and the fact that the window of opportunity to remove the mercury from cars manufactured before 2002 is limited. If the government fails to require switches to be removed from cars before they are recycled, it will miss an opportunity to prevent tons of mercury pollution, because as the auto fleet is modernized, a smaller and smaller percentage of cars will contain mercury switches over the next 10 years.

Unfortunately, EPA, the federal agency responsible for protecting the public from hazardous air pollutants such as mercury, has failed to address the vast majority of mercury pollution caused by switches in automobiles, and only has long-term plans to do so. Last year, only after NRDC demanded that EPA take action, did the agency insist that such plants institute a materials acquisition program specifying that scrap suppliers remove mercury light switches from trunks and hoods. These foundries also must inspect incoming scrap to ensure that switches are removed.

However, EPA's rule only applies to the large facilities that process about 10 percent of the automobile scrap each year. The remaining 90 percent winds up in so-called "mini-mills." EPA is only now beginning to consider establishing mercury removal requirements for them. The agency's delay means that more and more mercury is released daily from cars that are recycled with their switches intact, notwithstanding the fact that the Clean Air Act required EPA to issue stringent regulations by November 2000 for sources that account for 90 percent of mercury pollution nationwide.

EPA's laxness has prompted some states to take steps to curb mercury switch pollution locally. Maine, for example, recently passed a law requiring automobile scrap yards to remove convenience lights, and automakers to pay the scrap yards as partial compensation for removing the switches and delivering them for safe disposal. NRDC, working with several health and environmental groups in Maine, helped the state defend its law against a suit brought by automakers, and the court upheld the landmark provision. (For more information, click here.) Other states are considering similar legislation. But without federal standards to address this problem nationwide, mercury switches will be covered by a patchwork of state requirements.

Some States are Taking Action

The EPA issued a rule requiring large foundries to ensure the switches are removed, but those facilities process only about 10 percent of the vehicles scrapped every year. Meanwhile, more than a dozen states have either regulatory or voluntary programs in place, and a handful of other state legislatures are studying the problem or have debated specific legislation that has yet to pass. A quick look at the patchwork of state laws across the country strongly suggests that the federal government needs to establish national standards for keeping mercury from all scrapped vehicle components out of the environment.

Below is a list of states that either have programs in place or are considering them:

In California, the Mercury Reduction Act of 2001 (SB 633) requires scrap yards to properly handle mercury switches if they remove them from vehicles before crushing or shredding them. But the law does not require scrap yards to remove them. The law also bans the sale of vehicles with mercury switches manufactured after December 31, 2004. (You can find California SB 633 here.)

Colorado has a voluntary mercury switch collection program, but there are few incentives for participation. (For more on the Colorado program, click here.)

Connecticut has a collaborative program with the Connecticut Auto Recyclers Association, which provides for voluntary switch removal. (For more information, click here.)

According to EPA, Delaware encourages scrap yards to properly store and recycle switches, and has distributed a guidance manual for salvage yards. (To read the state's guidance to salvage yards, click here. )

Florida encourages mercury switch recycling as part of an initiative to improve scrap yards' management practices. The state published an environmental compliance workbook and will certify complying yards as "Florida Green Yards." (For more information, click here.)

Both houses of the Illinois state legislature have passed a bill (SB 2551) that the governor is expected to sign. The bill bans manufacturers from selling most new mercury-containing products in the state beginning July 1, 2005. It also requires the Illinois EPA to report to the legislature with recommendations for dealing with mercury-containing automobile components. (For more information, click here.)

Indiana has a voluntary mercury switch removal program. It does not require scrap yards to remove the switches, but it highly recommends it. (For more information, click here.)

The Maine legislature passed a strong mercury component recovery law requiring scrap yards to remove switches before crushing or shredding cars. The law also requires automakers to share the burden by compensating scrap yards for removing the components. (For more information, click here.)

There is pending legislation in Massachusetts based on a model bill from the Partnership for Mercury-Free Vehicles that would require automakers to share responsibility with scrap yards to properly dispose of mercury components. (Text of the bill is not currently available on the web, but its status is available here.)

Michigan, in cooperation with automakers, scrap yards and others, has extensively studied the issue of mercury switches. (For more information, click here.)

Minnesota legislators passed a law (MN Statutes 2003, Section 116.92, Subd. 4c) that requires scrap yards to make a good faith effort to remove all mercury switches from vehicles before crushing them. There also is pending legislation that would require automakers to share responsibility. (For more information, click here.)

A Mississippi bill (SB 2955) that would have banned the sale or distribution of a vehicle mercury light switch, the sale of a used vehicle without removing mercury light switches, and sending a vehicle to a scrap yard without removing mercury components, died in committee in March. (For more information, click here.)

Legislators in New Hampshire failed to pass a bill (SB 185) that would have required automakers to establish a program to recover mercury switches. (For more information, click here.)

A pending bill in New Jersey (Mercury Switch Removal Act of 2004, Assembly No. 2482) would require a plan to remove mercury switches from vehicles before crushing or shredding, and would require automakers to fund the program. (For more information, click here.)

New York conducted a pilot program in which approximately 5,000 switches were recovered from cars at the end of their lives and about 300 switches were removed from cars still in use. (For more information, click here.)

Ohio conducted a study of mercury emitted by scrap metal recycling plants. The state is considering establishing a voluntary switch removal program. (For more information, click here.)

Oregon prohibits the sale of new cars with mercury switches after January 1, 2006, and requires scrap yards to remove switches from vehicles before crushing. (For more information, click here.)

In Rhode Island, a bill was introduced in 2003 that would have required automakers to recover a minimum of 90 percent of the mercury switches in vehicles that are still in use or going to be scrapped. (For more information, click here.)

A Vermont program pays salvage yards to remove automobile mercury switches. (For more information, click here.)

A law in Washington (HB 1002) bans the sale of mercury switches in new vehicles manufactured after January 1, 2006. (For more information, click here.)

Wisconsin has a voluntary mercury switch recovery program for retired vehicles slated for scrap. (For more information, click here.)