Waste Prevention Information Exchange: Hazardous Substances
Mercury has become a contaminant of great concern. Mercury is found in the air, waterways, lakes, and the ocean. It is released into the air by the combustion of coal for electricity, and may be transported from the air to soil and water by rain. The mercury in urban storm water sediment results in part from improperly discarded fluorescent lights, electrical switches, thermometers, other mercury-containing devices, and historical and ongoing industrial activities.
Methyl mercury is more hazardous to humans and other animals than elemental mercury. We do not know all the sources of methyl mercury, but evidence suggests that methyl mercury escapes landfills into the air. It is suspected that this is primarily due to chemical modification by bacteria which converts elemental mercury disposed in landfills to methyl mercury.
Mercury readily evaporates, and mercury is readily absorbed into your body when you touch it. If you are near enough to touch mercury, as after a mercury thermometer breaks, you are most likely also inhaling mercury. (See the links to the Broken Mercury Thermometer Video below.) In humans, mercury vapor affects the nervous system, lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes. In waterways, mercury builds up in fish tissue and increases in concentration as it is transferred along the food chain. Mercury that has accumulated in fish tissue is passed on to wildlife and to humans. Mercury can have a permanent impact on fetal and child development.
The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has issued health advisories to fishers and their families giving recommendations on how much of the fish in these areas can be safely eaten. OEHHA also provides advice to the general public so people can continue to eat fish without putting their health at risk. See Methylmercury in Sport Fish: Information for Fish Consumers.
Where Households Can Dispose Mercury-Containing Products in California
- Where Can I Recycle My...?—Call 800 CLEAN-UP (253-2687) or enter your ZIP code at this Web site to find the nearest recycling center. Includes information about most recyclable household waste, including household hazardous waste collection centers. If this option does not work, ask your Local Contact for Waste Prevention and Recycling.
- Local Governmental Household Hazardous Waste Agencies—See the Web site of your local governmental household hazardous waste agency for the latest information in your area.
Hazardous waste regulations designate a category of hazardous wastes called "Universal Waste." This category includes many items, fluorescent lamps, cathode ray tubes, instruments that contain mercury, batteries, and others. Not all universal wastes are subject to the same regulations or disposal requirements. In general, universal waste may not be discarded in solid waste landfills. However, under the California's Universal Waste Rule (PDF, 108 KB) specified waste generators will be permitted to send specified universal wastes to landfills, but this disposal allowance has expired.
Under California's Universal Waste Rule (PDF, 108 KB), households and conditionally exempt small quantity generators were allowed to dispose fluorescent lamps, batteries (not lead/acid batteries of the type used in autos), mercury thermostats, and electronic devices to the trash through February 8, 2006, unless the local trash companies or other agencies prohibited it. Large and small quantity handlers are required to ship their waste to either another handler, a universal waste transfer station, a recycling facility, or a disposal facility.
On February 9, 2004, regulations took effect in California that classified all discarded fluorescent lamps as hazardous waste. This includes even low mercury lamps marketed as "TCLP passing" or "TTLC passing." No one in California is allowed to discard their fluorescent lamps and batteries as non-hazardous solid waste (as ordinary trash).
Contact the DTSC office near you for more information.
All other mercury-containing products must not be placed in the trash. All other mercury-containing products in your home must be disposed as household hazardous waste when you are ready to discard them.
Glass tube thermometers, with a red, blue, silver, or other colored stripe in the middle to indicate temperature generally contain either mercury or alcohol. If you do not know which substance is in a thermometer, do not break it open to find out. Treat it as though it contains mercury.
Some other items that might also contain mercury include jewelry, games, maze toys, and toys that light up or make noise. To determine which of these items contain mercury, call the Consumer Products Safety Commission’s hotline at (800) 638-2772.
For a more complete explanation of universal wastes, contact the California Department of Toxic Substance Control.
- Eliminating Mercury in Hospitals—This fact sheet is intended for hospitals, but the introduction gives some good general information about mercury. (Mention of trade names, products, or services does not convey, and should not be interpreted as conveying, official EPA or CalRecycle approval, endorsement, or recommendation. Other disclaimers apply.) Portable Document Format (PDF) 684 KB.
- Mercury and Municipal Solid Waste Landfills: An Industry Perspective—Report of a November 2001 public workshop on mercury. Potential releases of mercury from landfills, and the industries' review of the Department of Toxics Draft Mercury Report, below. Portable Document Format (PDF), 109 KB
- Mercury, CAS Number 7439-97-6—One of several Waste Minimization Priority Chemicals & Chemical Fact Sheets from U. S. EPA. Portable Document Format (PDF), 13 KB.
- Mercury in San Francisco Bay, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), Proposed Basin Plan Amendment and Staff Report—California Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Francisco Bay Region, April 30, 2004. Portable Document Format (PDF), 393 MB.
- Mercury in the Environment—A set of brief flyers by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control covering mercury-containing equipment commonly found in businesses and institutions (thermostats and probes, fluorescent and HID lamps, thermometers, switches and relays, and gauges). Multiple copies are available to California organizations that distribute it free of charge. Call 1-800-700-5854 and ask for document number 623.
- Mercury in Maine, A Status Report—Contains good background information that is applicable elsewhere. Portable Document Format (PDF), 445 KB.
- Mercury Study Report to Congress—Consists of several Portable Document Format (PDF) files of various sizes.
- Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment's role in Protecting the Public from Mercury Contamination—Developing toxicity guidelines and public health goals. Identifies and summarizes the warnings of toxic effects. Document Format (PDF), 67.5 KB
- Predemolition Environmental Checklist and Guide, Mercury—Useful assistance in determining the likely sources of mercury in a building demolition project. Published by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Portable Document Format (PDF), 28 KB.
- Specifying and Sourcing Mercury-Free HVAC and Building Equipment—From Inform. Portable Document Format (PDF), 100KB.
- Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury (2000)—From The National Academies Press. (Hint: For quick information on health effects of methylmercury, look at page 4 of the Executive Summary.)
- California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC)—For information or assistance with hazardous waste or mercury contact the DTSC office near you.
- Clancy, the Mercury Detecting Dog--Clancy works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
- Global Mercury Assessment—A project of the United Nations Environment Programme.
- Landfills Make Mercury More Toxic—This article in Science News Online cites studies that identify dimethyl-mercury (the worst form) in water vapor contained in landfill gas, showing that landfills might be a major contributor of mercury to the environment.
- Mercury—Information on mercury from U. S. EPA.
- Mercury-Added Products Database—To help identify what products contain mercury. From the Interstate Mercury Education & Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC)
- Mercury & Compounds—Information from the U. S. EPA's Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) Chemical Program.
- Mercury Compounds—From U.S. EPA's Technology Transfer Network Air Toxics Website.
- Mercury Policy Project (MPP)—A good resource for current information and legislation on mercury. MPP, a project of the Tides Center formed in 1998, works to raise awareness about the threat of mercury contamination, promote policies to eliminate mercury uses, reduce the export and trafficking of mercury, and significantly reduce mercury exposures at the local, national, and international levels.
- Mercury: Properties and Health Effects—From the the U. S. Department of Labor. Contains a linked list of references.
Spill Resources—Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
- Think mercury can't get to you? Watch the online videos posted on the Michigan DEQ Web site that show mercury vapor evaporating from spilled mercury at room temperature. Federal and California regulations classify mercury waste as hazardous. Regulations try to keep mercury out of municipal trash and out of municipal landfills. These videos illustrate one reason why. Mercury vapor might also escape municipal landfills by means other than evaporation.
Mercury Waste Classification and Management—From the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
PBT National Action Plan for Mercury, Draft—From U. S. EPA Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Pollutants (PBT) Program, 1998.