Why Mercury Is an Issue

Mercury is a metal with properties that make it useful for a variety of functions, included its use in materials that may be present in homes, businesses, and industry. Mercury's extremely toxic nature makes it dangerous. Mercury vapors are odorless, colorless, and tasteless. If a mercury containing item breaks, the mercury can be absorbed into carpeting and clothing and volatilize into the air, contaminating areas for long periods of time. Clean-up of such areas can be very expensive. Everyone should be aware of mercury's properties and the proper way to manage its use and removal.

Mercury enters the environment when it is poured down the drain or when mercury-containing products are put in the regular household trash or when mercury-containing waste is burned. Even the smallest mercury spill must be properly cleaned up. Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up spilled mercury. Instead, isolate the area and call the Ohio EPA spill hotline at 800-282-9378.

Once mercury is released into the environment its' toxicity, persistence, and ability to travel up the food chain are important issues for human health and the environment. In Ohio, there is a Statewide health advisory for mercury from fish consumption for sensitive populations, women of childbearing age, and children six years old or younger, issued by Ohio's Department of Health.

Mercury's extreme toxicity has resulted in EPA setting extremely low limits on the amount that can be discharged to receiving streams by wastewater treatment plants. Mercury discharge limits are measured at the parts per trillion level where 1 part per trillion is equivalent to 1 second in 320 centuries. In most cases, mercury cannot be feasibly removed to meet limits during wastewater treatment, which makes it very important that citizens become aware of the proper ways to manage mercury.

Where Mercury Is

Many common household items contain small amounts of mercury. Listed below are items that may contain mercury, although many mercury-free alternatives exist. (This list is not comprehensive.) These items pose no threat if used properly, but can be dangerous if misused or improperly discarded. 

If you suspect that you have mercury-containing items, contact the manufacturer for proper disposal information when they need to be replaced or discarded:

  • Non-digital thermostats including some in stoves, ovens, water heaters, clothes dryers, furnaces, and space heaters.
  • Switches or relays in chest freezers, washing machines, sump pumps, clothes irons, and silent light switches.
  • Some types of lights such as fluorescent lamps and high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps.
  • Medicine cabinet items such as fever thermometers, mercurochrome, merthiolate, and saline solutions.
  • Miscellaneous items such as button-cell batteries, unused pre-1990 paint, old alkaline batteries, and clock pendulums.

The following Ohio EPA website provides information on pollution prevention, alternatives to mercury containing products, locations to drop off old mercury containing products and information on what to do in case of a spill. For more information visit the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's website.