mercury.jpg Mercury is the 80th element on the periodic table and is useful for all sorts of things: thermometers, lights, batteries, even jewelry. It is also a very dangerous heavy metal. Unborn children exposed to mercury can suffer from neurological damage that impairs memory, language and fine motor skills. In adults, mercury poisoning can lead to problems with peripheral vision, coordination and muscle function. Because mercury is so dangerous, it is rarely found in homes or consumer products anymore. However, older homes may still have thermostats that contain mercury. Old-fashioned thermometers use mercury, and anyone who uses fluorescent lights has small amounts of the metal in their home. We share several tips for recycling mercury in its various forms.

How to recycle mercury thermostats

If your home thermostat has a digital readout, rest assured: It is new enough to be mercury-free. However, if your thermostat has knobs or small bars you slide to adjust the temperature, it probably contains mercury. The most fool-proof way to find out what is inside your thermostat is to remove its front cover. Look for a tiny glass cylinder with a small silver ball in it. That ball is mercury. Once you have carefully removed the thermostat to ensure the glass does not break, go online to visit the Thermostat Recycling Corporation. This national nonprofit was founded by the HVAC industry to help contractors and individuals responsibly recycle mercury thermostats. You can find the recycling location nearest you by typing your zip code into the locator bar at the top of the home page. Over 3,400 stores in 47 states participate in the program, so you should have no problem finding a place to take that old mercury thermostat.

How to recycle mercury thermometers

When I got sick as a kid my mom used a mercury thermometer to take my temperature. We had the same small glass thermometer the whole time I was growing up – quite a feat since there were four rambunctious kids in my family. I still remember my mom telling me how careful we had to be with that thermometer because the pretty silver liquid inside was so dangerous. These days most thermometers are digital. Even those made with glass contain alcohol instead of mercury (if the liquid inside the thermometer is red or blue, it is alcohol). But if you still have an old-fashioned mercury thermometer at home, you will need to dispose of it with care once its time comes. If your thermometer is still intact, you will need to take it to your local household hazardous waste (HHW) facility. Some communities have permanent HHW collection centers, while others only collect HHW occasionally. For example, the Clean Sweep Household Hazardous Waste program in Madison, Wisconsin, is open five days a week and charges a flat fee of $10 per visit for households (so take more than just a thermometer when you go). Scottsdale, Arizona, residents must wait for special collection events that happen throughout the year. You can also look for other places in your community that collect mercury thermometers. Many small communities north of Chicago, including Arlington Heights and Elk Grove, have mercury thermometer collection centers in their village halls. If your thermometer breaks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides extremely detailed information on how to clean it up. It is important to make sure children and pets leave the room, handle the mercury properly so it does not spread (no vacuuming allowed), and open a window so any airborne mercury can leave the house. Check the EPA’s website for the full list of do’s and don’ts.

How to recycle light bulbs with mercury

Fluorescent light tubes (commonly found in businesses and schools) and compact fluorescent light bulbs (found in homes across the country) contain mercury. The amount is higher in very old bulbs and lower in modern ones, but even this reduced amount is still significant enough that it is a good idea to recycle fluorescent light bulbs rather than throwing them in the trash. Many HHW centers will take your unwanted fluorescent light bulbs. Several large retailers, including IKEA, Lowes and True Value, collect them in certain communities (but it is worth calling ahead to make sure your local store really take them).
For more details on recycling fluorescent light bulbs, see this article on 1800Recycling.

Mercury in other products

Mercury can be found in other home goods, including button batteries, antiques, jewelry, and some skin creams, on rare occasion. For a complete list of mercury-containing products and how to properly dispose of them, visit this page on the EPA’s website. Keep in mind, too, that the most common way people ingest mercury is by eating fish. Certain types of fish contain more mercury than others because of their size, eating habits and the location of their habitats. To determine if the seafood you are eating is safe and ethically caught or raised, visit websites like Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Smart Seafood Guide from Food & Water Watch.