Automobile Industry Major Source Of Toxic Mercury Pollution

January 22, 2001

Automobiles are one of the nation’s largest sources of toxic mercury emissions, according to two studies—Toxics in Vehicles: Mercury and Toxic by Design—released today by leading environmental organizations. Despite practical, inexpensive alternatives and industry commitments to phase out its use, mercury continues to be widely used in new automobiles. Mercury is highly toxic to humans and wildlife and is released when automobiles are scrapped. The organizations called on US automakers to immediately eliminate the use of mercury in autos.

Toxics in Vehicles: Mercury — a collaboration of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Great Lakes United, based in Buffalo, New York, and the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies — documents how dangerous levels of mercury are released into the environment once cars leave the road and enter vehicle disposal and recycling processes.

The bulk of mercury releases occur when contaminated steel, recovered from scrap automobiles, is melted in electric arc furnaces (EAFs). The study estimates that EAFs emit 15.6 metric tons of mercury each year, which is more than all manufacturing sources combined. Automobiles are likely the single largest source of mercury-contaminated scrap. The report finds that EAFs are not only the largest manufacturing source of mercury air emissions in the US, but the fourth largest overall—behind only coal-fired power plants (utility and commercial/industrial boilers), and municipal waste incinerators.

“Our report clearly documents how the unnecessary use of mercury in automobiles is the primary culprit in contaminating the scrap steel recycling and recovery system,” said Charles Griffith, Auto Project Director at the Ecology Center. “These new findings show that the auto industry is one of the nation’s largest sources of mercury pollution.”

According to the second report — Toxic by Design, released by Environmental Defense — auto manufacturers have continued to use mercury in product design and purchasing decisions despite known concerns and the availability of practical, cost-effective alternatives. The report also finds that mercury is released by the manufacturers of automotive switches.

“Our studies show automakers are still using mercury, despite practical, low-cost alternatives,” said Dean Menke, Environmental Defense engineer. “The auto industry needs to immediately eliminate mercury use to protect public health and the environment,” said Menke.

Approximately 175 to 200 metric tons of mercury are in vehicles on the road today, primarily in mercury switches in hood and trunk lighting and anti-lock braking systems. One auto mercury switch contains nearly one gram of mercury, equivalent to the amount of mercury found in household fever thermometers, which are now being banned by many city and state governments due to increasing concern about the health risks resulting from the disposal of mercury containing products. While US manufacturers continue to use mercury switches, international automakers such as Toyota, Volvo and BMW have completely eliminated mercury switch applications since 1993.

The findings of both reports support an action plan developed by the national Clean Car Campaign for eliminating mercury hazards caused by automobiles. The action plan calls on US automakers to immediately eliminate the use of mercury switches in new cars and trucks, label component parts and vehicles that contain mercury, and take responsibility for the removal and safe collection of mercury switches in the existing fleet of vehicles currently on the road. These recommendations are also supported by over 50 environmental and public health groups.

“Just as we expect automakers to take responsibility—and even recall—vehicles that pose safety or environmental hazards while on the road, they also need to address the serious hazards once their products are sent to the scrap heap,” said Alexandra McPherson, Clean Production Coordinator at Great Lakes United. “This is the Firestone problem in a different form, with mercury harming people once the cars are off the road.”

Both reports are available for viewing or downloading on-line, at: