On Mount Olympus, Mercury is the Roman god with power over commerce and communication and all things speedy. Mercury is the fastest and smallest planet in the solar system and closest to the sun. And here on Earth, mercury is a substance that can kill you. It is therefore troubling to find out how many items in your own home contain mercury.
Mercury is an element that occurs naturally as a silver-colored liquid (hence the obsolete name quicksilver). It can evaporate and become an invisible, odorless and toxic vapour. Exposure to elemental mercury is usually the result of ruptured products and devices that contain it. When mercury combines with inorganic chemicals, it forms salts that are used in photography and as a wood preservative and fungicide. Combined with organic chemicals, it forms the highly toxic methylmercury, which is the form found in seafood. Mercury is an environmental pollutant released from coal-fired power plants, among other industrial sources.
A neurotoxin that can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, mercury has serious health effects. Unborn children are the most vulnerable to methylmercury, with impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills and visual-spatial skills. Adults exposed to high levels of methylmercury may experience vision loss, muscle weakness, and motor impairment. Exposure to elemental mercury can cause tremors, mood swings, headaches, neuromuscular problems, and decreased mental function. Acute exposure can be fatal.
To help reduce mercury pollution, find out if your electricity comes from coal and if so, try to find a safer source, either through a green energy program from your utility or other energy supplier or by installing solar panels (although these contain many other toxic materials). To reduce your personal exposure, learn to eat seafood safely; how to properly handle and recycle any products you already own that contain mercury; and look for mercury-free alternatives to the following products.
Batteries and Bulbs
Since 1996, mercury has been banned in the United States in all batteries with the exception of button cell batteries and mercury oxide batteries. Button batteries are used in small electronic devices like watches and pose no risk when used. However, they suffocate risk for small children and if ingested, can cause severe internal damage and even death. Button batteries should be recycled because mercury can be released when they are incinerated or landfilled, which is illegal in some areas. If local recycling is not available, you can use a mail-in recycling program. Once you’ve recycled your old batteries, consider switching to rechargeable batteries. Mercuric oxide batteries are produced for military and medical equipment that most households will not encounter.
Although CFL bulbs are much more energy efficient and last longer than older incandescent bulbs, they are among the types of light bulbs that contain small amounts of mercury. This means they must be handled with care to avoid breakage; if a CFL bulb breaks, it should be cleaned thoroughly. Bulbs containing mercury cannot be thrown in the trash. They must be recycled. Consider replacing CFL bulbs with LEDs.
Thermometers and thermostats
Safely clean a broken mercury thermometer is not easy, and there is little reason to take the risk. Not all thermometers contain mercury. If there is no liquid in the thermometer (for example, digital thermometers and most meat thermometers) or if the liquid in a thermometer bulb is a color other than silver, the thermometer does not contain mercury. Even if the cash is money, it maybe not mercury. If you have a mercury thermometer, it’s best to recycle it and replace it with a safer option.
New digital and electromechanical thermostats do not contain mercury and many states prohibit the sale of thermostats containing mercury. But many older thermostats contain about 3 grams of mercury in their switches. Remove the faceplate from your thermostat and look for the small glass bulbs inside determine if yours contains mercury. The switches do not present any risk during their use, but must be disposed of as hazardous household waste.
Mercury is used in LCD screens and monitors. It is also used in laptop screen stops. Televisions manufactured before 1991 may also contain mercury switches. These electronic products also contain many other toxic materials and should not be thrown away. Although recycling electronics is not always easy, it is important to do so. TCO certified technology products do not contain mercury but may not be available for all such electronic devices.
Like many toxic materials, the use of mercury was much more widespread in the past. Beware of antique barometers, clock pendulums, mirrors, vases and organs. Older electrical appliances, from chest freezers to space heaters, may contain mercury switches and pilot light sensors. Vehicles manufactured before 2003 may also contain mercury switches or relays and wheel balancers. These older products may need to be treated as household hazardous waste, taken to a specialist recycler, dismantled by a specialist or returned to the manufacturer. Safely disposing of mercury-containing products can take a lot of time and effort, but mercury is a material whose toxicity is serious enough to warrant extreme caution.
This article was originally published on May 23, 2022.