California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Waste Prevention Information Exchange: Hazardous Substances


Also see Fluorescent Lamps, Mercury in Health Care, and Universal Waste.

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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

See a list of all wastes banned from the trash.

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.


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Last updated: August 24, 2010
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