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Why is Mercury a Problem?

Type of thermostat containing mercuryMercury is a highly toxic element that can harm the brain, kidneys, and lungs. As the only element or metal that is liquid at room temperature, it is used in many common household products and fixtures.

To reduce risks to the public and environment, Washington State has passed legislation making it illegal to sell or distribute certain mercury-containing products in Washington, these include thermometers, manometers (blood pressure measuring devices), and novelty items such as toys, games, jewelry, or decorations that contain mercury. (For information on household mercury products, see Mercury in Home Products.)

Mercury Pollution

Mercury enters the air, land, and water from many sources.  In Washington state, the top three sources from human activities are diesel fuel combustion, coal-fired power plants, and wastewater treatment plants. Municipal and medical waste combustion are also large sources.  Mercury does not break down in the environment, it is "persistent" and builds up in the food chain (bioaccumulates).

We add to mercury pollution if we throw a mercury product in the trash or wash it down the drain.  Each year, broken fluorescent lamps in Washington release as much as 1,800 pounds of mercury.  Thermostats and dental amalgam add an estimated 400 pounds each.  Broken thermometers may add up to 300 pounds.

Products That May Contain Mercury

  • thermometers (looks like a silvery liquid)
  • thermostats
  • barometers
  • fluorescent and high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps
  • auto switches
  • float switches
  • button-cell batteries
  • old latex paint (pre-1990)
  • some oil-based paints
  • old alkaline batteries (pre-1996)
  • old fungicides for seeds and turf
  • dental amalgam

Amount of Mercury in Products

Product Amount of Mercury*
Fluorescent light bulbs 0 - 50 mg
Pocket Calculator 0 - 50 mg
LCDs 0 - 50 mg
Button-cell batteries (watches) 0 - 100 mg
Thermostats 10 - 1000 mg
Switches 10 - 1000mg
Dental amalgam 100mg to 1000mg
Thermometers 0 mg to 3 g
Older pressure gauges 3 - 10 g
Manometers and barometers 50 g to several pounds
Plumbing traps 100 g to several pounds

*Figures taken from Purdue University and NEWMOA (Northeast Waste Management Officials' Assn) Mercury in Products database.

Dispose of Mercury Products Responsibly

Take unwanted household products containing mercury to HazoHouse at the Thurston County Waste and Recovery Center. HazoHouse is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Businesses must register and pay a fee (call 360-867-2491). Do not break or tape fluorescent bulbs*; transport them in their original boxes if possible.

*If a fluorescent bulb is broken, clean up carefully, place it in double plastic bags (or equivalent), and take it to HazoHouse for proper disposal.

How to Clean Up Mercury Spills

If you spill a small amount of mercury (less than two tablespoons), do not touch it, and don't use a vacuum or broom to clean it up, which could distribute the mercury over a larger area. Open windows to the outdoors and turn off any centralized heating or cooling system. Remove metal jewelry and watches, and put on rubber gloves.

Use an eye dropper to remove all visible beads of mercury, or use stiff paper to scoop it up. Place the mercury in a wide-mouth container set in a pan to catch any drips, and seal the container with tape. Use duct tape to pick up any remaining particles - shine a flashlight on the area to see any beads of mercury. Place all the items that have touched mercury into double plastic bags and bring to HazoHouse.

If you spill more than two tablespoons, call the Washington Department of Ecology at 360-407-6300.

Other Links

For additional information, click on any of the links below:

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This page last updated: 08/11/14