Environmental Protection

Auto Recyclers Help Collect Mercury from Wrecks

Automobile recyclers in Washington have collected from the hoods and trunks of scrap vehicles more than 45,000 light switches containing toxic mercury, preventing the equivalent of 100 pounds of this toxic chemical from entering the environment.

When mercury switches are not removed, mercury escapes into the atmosphere as vehicles are crushed and later melted down for re-use.
Mercury can evaporate into the air and then be deposited into water and soil.Fish collect mercury in their bodies. This, in turn, can be a source of mercury exposure to people who consume the fish.Children and fetuses are the most vulnerable to the effects of mercury. Exposure can affect learning and behavior later in life.

"Washington was one of the first states in the nation to establish a program to remove toxic mercury light switches from salvaged vehicles, and it's an important effort in our overall strategy for keeping mercury out the environment," said Darin Rice, who manages Ecology's Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program.

The Washington program started in June 2006 after the agency signed an agreement with the Automotive Recyclers of Washington Association and End-of-Life Vehicle Solutions, which is an organization made up of vehicle manufacturers that used mercury switches. The agreement created a cooperative, voluntary, statewide program to collect mercury-containing switches.

"The mercury switch collection program is an outstanding example of a win-win industry-and-government partnership," said Don Phelps, president of the Automotive Recyclers of Washington Association. "It has been a pleasure for the auto recycling industry to work with the Department of Ecology on this program."

Auto recyclers include dismantlers, wrecking yards, and scrap metal processors.

The program is designed to prevent mercury releases to the environment that occur when recyclers crush, shred and melt vehicles. The mercury switches are one of the nation's largest sources of mercury contamination. Mercury light switches were used until 2003 for convenience lights under hoods and in trunks, as well as in anti-lock braking systems.

Currently, 95 percent of the 200,000 end-of-life vehicles are recycled in Washington each year. All the aluminum, steel and other usable materials are recycled in new products to save resources.

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