August 16, 2006 -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a host of industry groups have completed details of a nationwide program to retrieve mercury-containing light switches from scrapped vehicles prior to processing as scrap. Traces of mercury in steel scrap can contaminate the batch and escape into the atmosphere as airborne emissions, because furnace scrubbers and other emissions-control systems are generally incapable of containing the toxin.
Small amounts of mercury can cause damage to the human nervous system, and trace amounts have been shown to disrupt brain development in fetuses and children.
EPA and its partners expect the program will cut mercury air emissions by up to 75 tons over the next 15 years. Joining EPA in the new effort are the End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corp., the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Steel Manufacturers Assn., the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the Automotive Recyclers Assn., Environmental Defense, the Ecology Center (Ann Arbor), and representatives of the Environmental Council of the States.
Mercury was used as an activator in light switches that light up automatically for trunk and overhead lamps, until U.S. automakers discontinued their use in 2002. EPA estimates that 67.5 million switches remain in use in older vehicles, available for recovery.
The new program involves a financial incentive for automobile dismantlers to remove the mercury-containing light switches from scrapped vehicles prior to flattening and shredding. Specific details of the financial element of the program have not been reported.
Domestic steelmakers recycle over 14 million tons of steel annually from scrapped vehicles. Mercury-switch recovery efforts have already been established in various states. Other, larger sources of mercury air emissions are coal-fired utility boilers, industrial boilers, and mining, and recent efforts to cut mercury emissions have targeted industrial boilers, chlorine production facilities, and coal-fired power plants.