Mercury Rising... And Falling

Mercury...useful stuff. Dangerous stuff.

Mercury is the only common metal which is liquid at ordinary temperatures. It vaporizes relatively easily. Mercury can also combine with other metals to make "amalgams", or solutions of metals, and has been used in the extraction of gold because of this property.

Mercury has been commonly used in products like thermometers, thermostats, fluorescent lights, and some batteries. Although the mercury content of these products may not pose a significant risk during normal use, the mercury can escape when products are broken or disposed of. Once in the atmosphere, mercury can remain airborne for long periods of time and be deposited around the world.

Mercury in the environment can transform, through biological activity, into a highly toxic organic substance called methyl mercury. Methyl mercury builds up in living organisms through their surrounding environments and is concentrated as it transfers up the food chain.

Human exposure to mercury can cause brain, nerve, kidney, and lung damage and, in extreme cases, coma or death. Children exposed to mercury while in the womb can experience developmental difficulties.

Jurisdictions around the world are working to reduce our exposure to mercury. The federal government has set reduction targets for a variety of mercury-producing processes and products containing mercury.

It is simplest to reduce mercury exposure when viable alternatives exist. For example, there are many non-mercury options for thermometers, so anyone wishing to replace a thermometer with a non-mercury option will be able to so do. Mercury-containing thermometers should be taken to a household hazardous waste day so that the mercury can be properly recovered.

It's even easier to deal with mercury thermostats. Digital thermostats are readily available and many have the added advantage of being programmable, so you can save energy by setting the thermostat back when you are out or sleeping. Where the option exists, such as Saskatoon, old mercury thermostats can be taken to Household Hazardous Waste collection days.

Another product that contains mercury is fluorescent light tubes. These are mostly used in the commercial sector, although some homes have them as well. They are very energy efficient, especially the newer models.

There are Saskatchewan companies that can recycle fluorescent lights from businesses. Citizens with any of these types of lights can recycle them at a local household hazardous waste collection day, or check our recycling database.

While fluorescent bulbs can't get rid of mercury entirely, the manufacturers have reduced the amount of mercury over the years. So any new bulb will likely have less mercury than the one it replaces. Mercury content also varies by manufacturer. It's worth checking the mercury levels of different brands.

[Source: Feb. 2009 WasteWatch ]