Consumer and Commercial Products
Elemental, or metallic, mercury has properties that have led to its use in many different consumer and commercial products and industrial sectors. It conducts electricity, forms alloys with other metals, and expands in response to changes in temperature and pressure. Some mercury compounds are used as preservatives in medicines and other products.
While some manufacturers have reduced or eliminated their use of mercury in consumer and commercial or industrial products, there are still many existing items in the marketplace that contain mercury. EPA encourages individuals, organizations and businesses to use non-mercury alternatives and to recycle old or unused mercury-containing products whenever possible.Products of Interest to Many Consumers
- Dental Amalgam
- CFLs and Other Fluorescent Light Bulbs
- Necklaces and other Jewelry
- Skin-lightening creams
- Switches and Relays
- Thimerosal in Vaccines
- NEWMOA's IMERC Mercury-added Products Database
- U.S. FDA's Information on Mercury-Containing Medicines, Antibiotics and Vaccines
- The Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange (P2Rx)
- Substance Flow Analysis of Mercury Used in Products
- Product Stewardship
- State Legislation and Regulations
- NEWMOA's Mercury Reductions Programs Database
- Great Lakes Mercury in Products Phase-Down Strategy
- Mercury Product Labeling
- Mercury-Added Product White Paper
- PSI Mercury Thermostat and Fluorescent Lighting Projects
- Safe Management of Mercury-Containing Products
- Federal Requirements for Disposing of Mercury-Containing Equipment
- NEWMOA's Mercury Legacy Products
Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) and Mercury
ENERGY STAR-qualified CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent light bulbs, and last up to 10 times longer.
CFLs contain mercury.
Broken a CFL other fluorescent light bulb?
Need to dispose of a burned-out CFL? The best option is to recycle!
Some antique clocks, barometers and mirrors contain elemental mercury.
The Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) provides basic information on mercury-containing antiques including descriptions of the types of antiques that may contain mercury, and the potential hazards of a mercury release or spill.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report in June 2007 that describes several releases of elemental mercury from antique clocks, barometers and mirrors, and lists measures to help prevent unintentional releases of elemental mercury from antiques. Although none of these spills resulted in symptoms or acute health effects, they required extensive clean-up actions to prevent future mercury exposure. The report findings underscore the need for caution when handling antiques containing elemental mercury and the need for proper clean-up of spills.
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection provides a Web page that describes how the Connecticut Mercury Education and Reduction Act applies to mercury-containing antiques and provides advice about handling and transporting them.
Antiques dealer Charles Edwin includes detailed instructions about how to prepare a mercury-containing barometer for a short or long move.
Manufacturers around the world have long used mercury in batteries to prevent the buildup of hydrogen gas, which can cause the battery to bulge and leak. According to a 2004 report for the European Commission (104 pp, 969K, about PDF), global battery production still accounts for about a third of total global demand for mercury based on data for the year 2000, and over 95% of this usage is attributed to battery makers outside the United States.
In the U.S., however, the use of mercury in consumer batteries has declined sharply. In the early 1980s, U.S. battery manufacture constituted the largest single domestic use of mercury - over 1,000 tons annually. By 1993, many battery manufacturers had begun selling mercury-free alkaline batteries. This became the national standard in 1996 with passage of the federal Mercury-Containing Battery Management Act. Today, most batteries made in the U.S. do not contain added mercury. The two exceptions are mercuric oxide batteries and button cell batteries.
Mercuric Oxide Batteries:
In mercuric oxide batteries, mercury is used as an electrode rather than an additive to control gas buildup. The mercury accounts for up to 40% of the battery weight and cannot be reduced without reducing the energy output of the battery. Mercuric oxide button cells once were widely used in hearing aids but now are prohibited under federal law. Larger mercuric oxide batteries still are produced for military and medical equipment where a stable current and long service life is essential. Federal law allows these batteries to be sold, but only if the manufacturer has established a system to collect the waste batteries and ensure that the mercury is properly managed. Users are prohibited from disposing of spent mercuric oxide batteries except through the collection system established by the manufacturer.
Button Cell Batteries:
Button cell batteries are miniature batteries in the shape of a coin or button that are used to provide power for small portable electronic devices. The four major technologies used for miniature batteries are: lithium, zinc air, alkaline, and silver oxide. Lithium miniature batteries contain no intentionally-added mercury. However, small amounts of mercury are still added to most zinc air, alkaline and silver oxide miniature batteries in order to prevent the formation of internal gases that can cause leakage. Zinc air batteries are used mainly in hearing aids; silver oxide batteries are used in watches and cameras; and alkaline manganese batteries are used in digital thermometers, calculators, toys and a myriad of other products requiring a compact power source.
While the federal Battery Management Act of 1996 prohibits the sale of mercuric oxide button cells, it specifically allows the sale of alkaline manganese button cells containing mercury content of up to 25 milligrams (mgs). At that time, the technology did not exist to control the formation of gas in miniature batteries without using mercury. The Battery Act is silent regarding the mercury content of silver oxide and zinc air button cell batteries. According to a 2005 report by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection , button cell batteries sold by U.S. manufacturers in 2002 had the following average mercury content: silver oxide, 2.5 mg; zinc air, 8.5 mg; and alkaline, 10.8 mg. U.S. manufacturers continue to pursue the development of reliable “no mercury” formulas to eliminate mercury altogether from these button cell batteries. (Lithium button cell batteries currently do not contain mercury but they may pose a fire risk, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.)
Mercury from button cell batteries can be released to the environment during various stages of the product life cycle, but primarily during manufacturing and disposal. The use and disposal of mercury-added button cells are unregulated at the federal level. They do not have to be labeled; it is legal to dispose of them in the household trash; and they rarely are collected for recycling in most U.S. jurisdictions. Some states are now considering whether the disposal of button cell batteries should be regulated or whether recycling should be encouraged. Because button batteries currently are not widely targeted for recycling, almost all of this mercury presumably ends up in the municipal solid waste stream where it is either incinerated or landfilled.
Additional information on button cell batteries is available in a 2004 report from the State of Maine: An Investigation of Alternatives to Miniature Batteries Containing Mercury (PDF) (76 pp, 440K, about PDF)
There are some necklaces imported from Mexico that contain a glass pendant that contains mercury. The mercury-containing pendants can come in various shapes such as hearts, bottles, balls, saber teeth, and chili peppers.
OregonState Department of Human Services information about mercury used in inexpensive, imported necklaces. Broken necklaces have resulted in mercury spills at schools.
In the past mercury was used in many water-based latex paints as a fungicide to prevent the growth of bacteria. Its use in interior and exterior latex paint was discontinued in the United States in 1991.
EPA's indoor air Web site presents information about addressing indoor environmental concerns during remodeling.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and several states have investigated cases of mercury poisoning due to the use of creams used for lightening the skin, fading freckles and age spots, and treating acne. These unlabeled creams, imported from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, may contain thousands of times the level of mercury allowed by FDA. Medical providers should alert their patients who may be using unlabeled, nonprescription creams for lightening the skin, fading freckles and age spots, and preventing acne, that these products may be harmful to their health.
For more information:
- April 2012 USA.gov blog entry on skin lotions tainted with mercury
- March 2012 FDA consumer update on mercury poisoning linked to skin products
- May 2010 California Department of Public Health alert on mercury in skin creams (PDF) (4 pp., 103K, about PDF)
- October 2010 Illinois Environmental Protection Agency brochure on mercury in skin-lightening products (PDF) (2 pp., 72K, about PDF).
Switches are products or devices that open or close an electrical circuit, or a liquid or gas valve. Mercury-added switches include float switches, actuated by rising or falling liquid levels; tilt switches, actuated by a change in the switch position; pressure switches, actuated by a change in pressure; and temperature switches and flame sensors actuated by a change in temperature. Relays are products or devices that open or close electrical contacts to control the operation of other devices in the same or another electrical circuit. Relays are often used to turn on and off large current loads by supplying relatively small currents to a control circuit. Mercury-added relays include mercury displacement relays, mercury wetted reed relays, and mercury contact relays.
The Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) provides information on the different types of switches and relays in use, as well as information on the amount of mercury used in them.
Find more information about proper management of mercury switches in automobiles and learn about EPA's National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program.
Mercury thermostats use mercury tilt switches to sense and control room temperature through communication with heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment. A mercury thermostat may contain one or more switches, depending on how many heating and cooling systems it activates.
The Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA), provides a fact sheet with information on the use of mercury in thermostats , including the amount of mercury used in thermostats in the US, non-mercury alternatives, and collection and recycling programs.
Mercury thermostats are unlikely to break or leak mercury while is use, but they need to be properly disposed of when being replaced. If a mercury thermostat is being replaced by a household occupant rather than by a heating and air conditioning professional, the old thermostat should be disposed of by taking it to a state or local household hazardous waste collection center for recycling. For information about these programs, contact your local collection program to find out whether you can drop your old thermostats off any time or whether you should wait for the next collection effort in your area. You can also use earth911.com to find collection programs in your area -- just type in "thermostat" or "mercury" and your zip code to get a list of programs that accept mercury-containing thermostats.
Some consumers are concerned about the use of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, in vaccines. Since 2001, with the exception of some influenza (flu) vaccines, thimerosal is not used as a preservative in routinely recommended childhood vaccines.
To learn more about this use of thimerosal, please see information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on medicines that contain mercury and thimerosal in vaccines, and information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on thimerosal in vaccines.
Interstate Mercury Education & Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC) Mercury-Added Products Database - The IMERC database is managed by the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA). It presents information on:
- the amount and purpose of mercury in specific products that are sold in eight IMERC-member states;
- the total amount of mercury in these products sold nationally in a given year; and
- the manufacturers of these products.
The information is submitted to IMERC by or on behalf of product manufacturers in compliance with laws in the eight states of Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Notification requirements have been in effect for products manufactured or distributed in these states beginning in January 2001. The information is updated every three years.
U.S. FDA's Information on Mercury-Containing Medicines, Antibiotics and Vaccines - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a list of mercury-containing drug and biologic products, including the types and percentages of mercury ingredients in each of these products. The list includes non-homeopathic human and veterinary drug products and human biological products. Homeopathic drug products are not included because of the low amounts of mercury present in the products. Additional information on thimerosal content for biological products can be found on their Thimerosal in Vaccines and Mercury in Plasma-Derived Products pages.
The Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange (P2Rx) - Links to information and resources about mercury in health care, dentistry, and thermometers (home, medical, and industrial use). This page provides resources for establishments providing health care including hospitals, dental offices, doctors' offices, and clinics.
Substance Flow Analysis of Mercury Intentionally Used in Products in the United States (PDF) (15 pp., 422K, about PDF) - This article presents an effort to use substance flow analysis to develop improved estimates of the environmental releases caused by mercury-containing products and to provide policy makers with a better understanding of opportunities for reducing releases of mercury caused by products. Written in part by EPA staff, the article was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 11, Issue 3, on pages 61-75. [Note: link does not go directly to PDF; PDF available only to registered users, or access may be purchased.]
Product Stewardship - This page has information about the numerous stewardship efforts that have been initiated by government, industry, and non-governmental organizations, targeting a variety of mercury-containing products. There is a need to decrease the use of mercury in household and commercial products, and to prevent the mercury in existing products from entering the waste stream. When solid waste is burned in an incinerator, the mercury that is present can be released to the atmosphere and present a hazard to human health.
NEWMOA's Mercury Reductions Programs Database - This database provides information about mercury reduction programs across the nation. You can also add information about a program that your organization has created to reduce mercury.
Great Lakes Mercury in Products Phase-Down Strategy (PDF) (June 2008) (75 pp., 426K, about PDF) - Great Lakes states and tribes along with EPA developed this basin-wide Strategy to phase out the use of mercury-containing products and provide for mercury waste management. The Strategy includes recommendations for action by the Great Lakes states, focusing on specific products and sectors, as well as for actions cutting across multiple products and sectors. The Strategy was developed under the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC), a multi-stakeholder process led by federal agencies, Great Lakes governors, Great Lakes mayors, Great Lakes tribes, and members of the Great Lakes states Congressional delegation.
Mercury Product Labeling (PDF) (March 2006) (24 pp., 625K, about PDF) - QSC report intended to stimulate discussion about the value and effectiveness of labeling mercury-added products as an approach for phasing out nonessential uses of mercury. The document describes activities in nine states and provides information about the value and effectiveness of state programs.
Mercury-Added Product White Paper (PDF) (November 2006) (19 pp., 113K, about PDF) - QSC paper identifies five mercury containing products where State and Federal agencies could reduce mercury use through voluntary and regulatory mechanisms.
The Product Stewardship Institute is working on a mercury thermostat project and a fluorescent lighting project. In the thermostat project, PSI is working with stakeholders to educate heating and cooling contractors and homeowners about the need to responsibly manage mercury thermostats, expand the availability of current recycling locations, provide incentives that motivate contractors and homeowners to recycle, and increase the replacement rate of mercury thermostats with non-mercury alternatives. In the lighting project, PSI is convening a national dialogue for the negotiation of strategies to address key issues, and conducting a pilot project to collect fluorescent lamps and thermostats from retail locations.
Safe Management of Mercury-Containing Products - This table describes how mercury is used in a host of consumer products; the potential for mercury spills while using these products; and recommended management practices for disposing of these products at the end of their useful lives. The table includes information on some older mercury-containing products, such as certain latex interior and exterior paints, that are no longer sold but still exist and need to be disposed of.
Federal regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) include specific requirements for handling and disposing of mercury-containing equipment under the universal waste rule.
NEWMOA's Mercury Legacy Products - A "legacy product" is a mercury-added product that is no longer sold as a new product in the U.S., but may still be in use, may be resold as a used or antique product, or may simply be stored in homes or businesses. These products may be subject to waste disposal restrictions because of their mercury content. Some states also restrict the re-sale of these products. This website provides information about the past and current uses of mercury-added legacy products, including photographs, types of situations in which the products were typically used, the location of mercury in the product, and information on their proper handling, removal, and disposal.
Non-Mercury Alternative Products
Mercury leaks or spills can be prevented through the safe management and recycling of products at the end of their useful lives. However the optimal way of preventing exposure to elemental mercury is to reduce the use of mercury-containing products by using alternatives whenever possible. In most cases, non-mercury alternatives exist for mercury-containing products.
National Wildlife Federation (NWF), 2002 report: Mercury Products Guide: The Hidden Dangers of Mercury (PDF) (51 pp, 948K, about PDF).
Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, 2003 report: An Investigation of Alternatives to Mercury Containing Products (PDF) (85 pp, 403K, about PDF).
Lowell Center for Sustainable Production: An Investigation of Alternatives to Miniature Batteries Containing Mercury (PDF) (72 pp, 1.1MB, about PDF).