Mercury waning: Online oversight reduces sales of devices containing toxic metal

For centuries, mercury was used in thermometers, barometers and other measuring devices because it expands and contracts evenly with temperature and pressure changes. Unfortunately, mercury is also a potent neurotoxin that can cause damage or death even at low doses.

In 2003, Washington banned the sale of measurement devices and novelty items containing mercury. Seventeen other states and the European Union have adopted similar restrictions. And 128 countries, including the United States, signed a 2013 convention pledging to phase out use of the toxic metal.

To ensure that retailers and manufacturers complied with these restrictions, Ecology recently searched online stores for items containing mercury. These included both major retailers and specialty sellers.

Despite its toxicity, mercury is not banned everywhere. So, in order to verify whether these retailers had systems in place to prevent the sale of mercury-containing items to buyers in Washington, our product enforcement staff bought a selection of these products. Companies that sold and shipped the items to Washington were informed about our state’s laws and requirements for compliance.

mercury instruments, all long fairly thin devices with numbers on the devices and clear materials, for measuring mercury.
The good news is that the retailers were extremely responsive. Some simply stopped selling mercury-containing items altogether. Others put measures in place to ensure they didn’t sell these items in Washington or other jurisdictions with restrictions in place.

In all, Ecology’s efforts resulted in more than 1,100 different mercury thermometers, barometers, manometers, sphygmomanometers, and other measuring devices being removed from sale.

Washington has a number of laws restricting the sale of products containing toxic chemicals like flame retardantsleadbisphenol A, and phthalates. Ecology regularly tests consumer products to see whether manufacturers are complying with both state and federal restrictions on toxics and other reporting requirements.

You can browse our product testing data.