Mercury Switches in End of Life Vehicles

In every automobile, there are multiple switches used for trunk and hood lights as well as anti-lock breaks. In each switch there contains a fraction of mercury. Mercury is a metal that is liquid at room temperature. Because of its fluid state, it is a highly efficient superconductor, making it a very useful element in constructing these 'convenience' auto switches.

When a vehicle hits the end of its life, it is typically sent to an auto dismantler where all of the valuable and recyclable parts are extracted for reuse. Dismantlers will also remove the highly toxic ingredients of a vehicle, like motor fluid, transmission fluid, gas, etc., before the ELV is sent to a scrap recycler or smelter. If the mercury switches are not taken out before the ELV gets flattened or smelted, the mercury from the switches releases into the air and eventually settles into nearby water bodies and/or top soil. And thus the process of food chain contamination begins.

What We Know Now
Although current law, SB 633 (Sher), bans the sale of mercury-switch automobiles in California as of January 1, 2005, there are still many cars on our roadways containing this liability to our public health. US automobiles currently contain 123 tons of mercury which may one day make it to our waterways. In 2003, there were 2,332 pounds of mercury contained in cars retired from the state of California. That contributes more than 10% to the total US auto scrap mercury pollution, which is more than any other state by itself.

A May 2004 California Research Bureau report affirmed the environmental risks associated with mercury and stated that compliance for mercury switches was one of the weakest. It recommended providing a bounty for recovered switches to partially cover the costs of removal, collection, storage and transportation of the hazardous materials.

What CAW Has Done
CAW sponsored AB 1240 (Levine), which would have required all automobile manufacturers who sell vehicles in this state to establish, set up, and finance a program to incentivize all auto dismantlers to remove mercury switches and turn them in for recycling/safe disposal.

The measure failed passage in 2005, due to opposition from auto makers. However, under the leadership of Assembly Member Lloyd Levine, in early 2006 the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), and the State of California Auto Dismantler Alliance (SCADA), and Californians Against Waste reached a tentative agreement on a program funded by auto makers to remove and recycle mercury switches. In conjunction with the educational materials about switch removal already distributed by the DTSC, the AAM will distribute containers to all participating dismantlers in California with a 1-800 number on each bucket for switch collection. The containers can then be safely transported to a mercury handling facility. In September 2006, Asm. Levine announced the success of the Mercury Auto Switch Recycling Program thus far, by collecting 100 pounds of switches in the first five months. In 2007, the numbers have so far reached over 300 pounds of switches collected in the same time frame in California alone.

At the same time, auto manufactures, auto dismantlers and recyclers, the US EPA and environmental groups reached a similar agreement on a National mercury switch removal and recycling program.