Mercury is found in many consumer products, from appliances and automobiles to electronics, lightbulbs and -- yes -- some toys.
But while the dangers of mercury are well known -- in tiny doses it can interrupt the normal development of the brain and nervous system, leading to life-long learning problems, among other risks -- it is still an essential part of many products. In many cases, there is little or no risk of exposure to mercury from these products, but using mercury in the manufacturing introduces it into commerce, and disposal causes pollution -- either at landfills or in waste incinerators. Most exposure to mercury comes from eating contaminated fish, which get tainted by the fallout from mercury air pollution coming from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators and other industrial sources.
The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that viable alternatives exist for many products that now use mercury. Switches, relays, button cell batteries, non-fever thermometers, and measuring devices, such as thermostats -- none of them need mercury.
Button cell batteries -- those silver dime-sized batteries in some watches, toys and other small electronic devices -- are the source of mercury in toys, according to the EPA. Moving to alternatives would reduce the risk of exposure to children at their most vulnerable stages.
While mercury in thermostats was once common, most heating and cooling equipment today is already made with electronic or other alternative thermostats.
But mercury would remain in some common products, even if the EPA is successful in either regulating the use of mercury in these products, or negotiating a voluntary phase-out:
Removing mercury from switches and relays would reduce the use of mercury in appliances, though mercury could remain in fluorescent lights, boiler controls, valves and pump control systems in air purifiers and ranges.
Older cars, particularly, may contain mercury in switches and convenience lighting.
And mercury continues to be used in Thimerosal, a controversial vaccine preservative, as well as a component in many other chemicals used in industry and laboratories.
Computers, televisions and other devices with LCD screens would still contain mercury.
And, of course, mercury is still found in compact fluorescent bulbs that are increasingly popular energy-saving devices.
This information comes from a new EPA database of mercury-containing products. Anyone can download the database to learn more.
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