Most Mercury Waste Regulations Fail to Account for Vapor Release


Mercury vapor, which can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, can cause neurological damage to adults, children, and fetuses. As it doesn’t degrade in the environment, it can be classified as a persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemical. When mercury gets into water, it is converted to a more toxic compound called methyl mercury and enters the food chain through fish, which can cause significant health problems if consumed.

If mercury wastes are not properly managed, they can threaten our quality of life and the environment.

Mercury has many common uses; barometers, thermostats, batteries, thermometers, and common electrical equipment and medical devices often contain the element. Local and state environmental regulations – and EPA enforcement of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Toxic Substances Control Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act – regulate the generation, treatment, storage, handling, cleanup, and disposal of mercury wastes.

One of the common uses of mercury is in fluorescent lamps, as it is used to conduct the charge that makes the lamp glow. While federal regulations and laws in many states encourage proper recycling of mercury waste, and of fluorescent lamps in particular, these regulations need to be more stringent. Shipping and packaging of mercury-containing products is of primary concern because improper packaging can result in significant health and environmental risks. Fluorescent lamps, in particular, represent unique packaging challenges due to their fragile nature.

Proper Packaging and Disposal

To avoid the health and environmental risks associated with mercury vapor emissions from mercury-containing products, bulbs should be packaged, stored and transported to recycling facilities in packaging that addresses risks from potential spillage of broken lamps and that is designed to contain mercury vapor. Exposure to mercury vapor is regulated by state and federal occupational safety and health organizations. While some mercury vapor regulations exist, there is still need for further, more-stringent regulations that address packaging, transportation and recycling issues associated with fluorescent lamps.

Need for State Regulations

While existing federal regulations require that shipped products do not physically spill during transportation, the rules do not recognize that mercury vaporizes at room temperature, creating a need for specialized health and safety packaging requirements that address vapors. Current rules are directed at minimizing spills, but they do not address the unique health and safety personnel issues represented by transporting broken, but contained, mercury-containing products in packages that meet federal mercury exposure standards.

Environmental practitioners know that federal environmental laws often follow the lead of state laws and regulations, and mercury waste regulation is no exception. As the hazards of mercury vapor exposure and the effect of mercury pollution resulting from improperly disposed mercury-containing products increases, lawmakers are increasingly formulating new policies and regulations to encourage proper packaging and transportation.

Washington Takes the First Step

In March of 2010, Washington became the first state to address the dangers of unsafe packaging and transportation of used fluorescent lamps. The new law requires that recycled lamps be packaged and shipped in material that will minimize the loss of mercury in the environment, which will help reduce the potential health and safety threats that result from the release of mercury vapor into the environment. The law also states that fluorescent lamp packaging must include mercury vapor barrier materials if lamps are transported by the United States Postal Service or a common carrier, or if they are collected via curbside programs and mail-back businesses.

Additional states are considering their own, more-specific regulations regarding fluorescent lamp disposal. The state of Wisconsin recently considered legislation that would apply newer mercury-containing equipment packaging standards to used lamps from households. If adopted, the law would require those lamps to be managed in containers "designed to prevent the escape of mercury into the environment by volatilization or other means."

Minnesota, Massachusetts, California, and Vermont are among states that prohibit disposal of all mercury-product waste in landfills. New York has a similar ban, with an exemption for households and businesses with 100 or fewer employees disposing of 15 or fewer non-hazardous waste lamps per month. Many other states prohibit non-household generators from disposing of any mercury-containing fluorescent lamps in solid waste landfills regardless of EPA-required Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure test results, including Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Florida and Rhode Island.

Future Regulatory Issues

Future regulation will also have an effect on the packaging, shipping and recycling of mercury-containing products. A new federal regulation that goes into effect in 2013 effectively bans the exportation of elemental mercury by prohibiting the transfer of elemental mercury by federal agencies, banning U.S. export of elemental mercury by 2013, and requiring the Department of Energy to designate and manage an elemental mercury long-term disposal facility. However, the ban is limited in scope, as it only extends to relatively pure mercury and does not extend to mercury wastes or compounds.

As legislation evolves, nations and states will continue to consider imposing more specific packaging requirements to supplement existing regulations. Federal and state laws should be amended to specifically that mercury wastes be transported in packaging that is specifically designed to prevent the loss of mercury vapors.

About the Author

Peder A. Larson is the regulatory and government relations counsel for Larkin Hoffman Attorneys in Minneapolis.

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