Upheld Maine Law Will Help Reduce Health Risk From Toxic Mercury

February 17, 2004

(17 February 2004)  Environmental Defense called the ruling today by the U.S. District Court, First Circuit to uphold the Maine mercury auto switch law a triumph for human health and the environment.  This law requires the auto industry to set up a system and pay for the removal of mercury switches from cars that contain them.  Similar bills have been introduced in the Minnesota and Massachusetts state legislatures.

“This law will help remove from the environment this highly dangerous chemical that can cause permanent brain damage to fetuses and infants,” said Environmental Defense project manager Karen Thomas.  “Removing switches before vehicles are recycled is a cost effective way to reduce mercury exposure in the U.S. compared to controlling mercury emissions from smokestacks.”

The ruling today upholds the Maine Law, An Act to Prevent Mercury Emissions when Recycling and Disposing of Motor Vehicles, striking down the auto industry’s claim that the law impedes interstate commerce and imposes unreasonable financial burdens on automakers, among other things.  Enacted on July 25, 2002, the law requires the automakers to establish and maintain consolidation facilities for the collection of mercury switches, pay a minimum of $1 per switch, phase out some uses of mercury, and label mercury components in new cars. 

“Now that a federal court has confirmed that the law is constitutional, there is no reason why every state should not follow Maine’s lead,” said Thomas.  “Instead of resisting sensible policies, automakers need to take responsibility for solving the problem that they helped create.”

Mercury switches are the nation’s largest manufacturing source of toxic mercury.  Since automakers began installing the switches in autos over 30 years ago, they have used an estimated 197 tons of mercury in vehicles in the U.S.  The mercury from these devices has been released into the environment as vehicles are scrapped at the end of their useful life.  After publicly pledging to use mercury-free alternatives, the auto industry continued to use mercury switches for at least eight years even though mercury free alternatives cost only pennies more.

Environmental Defense works on this issue through the Partnership for Mercury-Free Vehicles, which includes the Steel Manufacturers Association, Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, Steel Recycling Institute, Automotive Recyclers Association, and the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center.