What is mercury?
Mercury is a heavy liquid metal. It reacts with other substances to form organic and inorganic compounds and creates amalgams by combining with other metals. Mercury occurs naturally in certain hard-rock and metallic ores. It can enter the environment from both natural emissions and human activities.
Sources and exposure
Mercury was used in a variety of consumer products, including thermostats, auto switches, fluorescent lights, and dental amalgam. Mercury enters the environment from disposing of consumer products in landfills, incinerating them, or flushing them down the drain. Other sources include mining, emissions from coal-powered plant emissions and refineries, and fuel combustion.
Mercury that is released to land, air, or water can eventually find its way to lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Eating fish is one of the most common ways people are exposed to mercury. Methylmercury builds up in the aquatic food chain as organisms are eaten by larger ones. Fish at the top of the food chain, like tuna, contain much higher concentrations of mercury than the surrounding water.
Toxicity and health effects
All forms of mercury are toxic to people and other animals. Mercury affects the brain and nervous system, damages the kidneys and liver, and has been linked to cancer. Children are especially at risk because their brains and bodies are still developing. Many of the health effects of mercury are permanent.
Taking action against mercury
The chemical action plan for mercury found that Washington can reduce mercury pollution by focusing on improving waste disposal, management, and recycling. The Legislature has passed laws to reduce the sale of mercury-containing products and worked with power companies to phase out coal-fired power plants. We worked with dentists to install amalgam separators and with auto recyclers to collect mercury switches from older cars.
Chemical action plan recommendations
- Install amalgam separators in dental offices.
- Safely dispose of mercury waste for households and small businesses.
- Replace medical equipment containing mercury and improve waste separation in hospitals.
- Reduce coal power emissions.
- Provide technical and engineering assistance to manufacturers and oil refiners.
- Provide technical assistance to wastewater treatment plants, and waste recycling and disposal facilities.
History of actions to address mercury in Washington
2015 — Launch of LightRecycle Washington, a program for collecting and safely recycling mercury-containing lights.
2010 — Washington Legislature passes TransAlta Energy Transition Bill, which will shut down Washington’s only coal-fired power plant by 2025. Burning coal is a significant source of mercury emissions.
2010 — Washington Legislature passes Mercury-Containing Lights Law, requiring fluorescent and high-intensity discharge lights containing mercury to be recycled, and establishing a product stewardship program to help consumers recycle these lights.
2010 — Ecology signs agreement with Automotive Recyclers of Washington and a manufacturers group to offer a “bounty” for recyclers that remove mercury switches from older cars and trucks.
2003 — Ecology finalizes the chemical action plan for mercury.
2003 — Washington's Mercury Education and Reduction Act bans the sale of certain mercury-containing products, requires the labeling of mercury-containing light bulbs and lamps, and requires the removal of mercury from elementary and high schools.
2000 — Public and private utilities in Washington begin an effort to replace mercury-containing pressure devices with solid state ones.