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EPA Rules

EPA rules deal with mercury source hidden in cars.
© 2006, Chicago Tribune

One of the largest sources of toxic mercury in the United States is hidden in millions of tiny switches in cars and trucks.

Although each switch contains only a few drops of the silvery metal liquid sealed in a capsule, state and federal regulators say the mercury becomes a major environmental problem when cars are scrapped and melted in steel mills.

Under pressure to reduce mercury emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced a national agreement with the steel and auto industries to encourage collection of the switches before cars are shredded or crushed.

The deal comes less than a week after Illinois lawmakers approved a measure that would require the auto industry to pay a bounty to auto recyclers unless at least 70 percent of the mercury-laden switches junked in the state each year are safely removed.

Seven states already have collection programs in place. Seven others are considering similar legislation, but most programs are voluntary and don’t include the financial incentives that Illinois is moving to adopt.

“It’s very important to get this source of mercury cleaned up,” said Jonathan Goldman, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, a group that helped negotiate an agreement on the state legislation. “This is an effective way to achieve that goal.”

Mercury can cause learning disabilities in children and neurological problems in adults. The chief source of exposure is eating fish contaminated by air pollution that falls into oceans, lakes and streams.

Auto switches are responsible for nearly 400 pounds of mercury released into the air in Illinois each year, an amount equivalent to annual emissions from a large coal-fired power plant, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Nationwide, there are 35 million mercury switches in vehicles on the road, according to industry estimates. The metal was used as recently as the 2002 model year in devices that control antilock brakes and convenience lights inside trunks and under hoods.

When a trunk is opened, for instance, gravity causes mercury in a capsule to complete an electrical circuit that turns on the light.

Manufacturers started redesigning their vehicles with nontoxic alternatives after regulators figured out that mercury is released into the air when cars are scrapped and sold to steel mills.

Switches in older cars account for as much as 11 tons of mercury waste each year, according to U.S. EPA estimates. Coal-fired power plants, the largest manmade source of the metal, release 48 tons a year.

Though the amount of mercury in each switch is small, removing the devices from scrap metal incinerated by steel mills can significantly reduce mercury pollution.

Regulators in New Jersey, one of the first states to address the problem, estimate the switches were responsible for half of the mercury emissions from some steel mills.

“There is no reason this toxic metal should be getting into our environment,” said Illinois Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park), who has been pushing legislation on the issue for two years.

May’s bill sailed through the House last week on a unanimous vote, as did an identical measure in the Senate. Both chambers must approve one of the bills before it can be sent to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The legislation requires the auto industry to start collecting switches from scrap yards and recyclers. If the program fails to remove 70 percent of the switches from junked cars each year by 2009, the automakers would be required to pay a $2 bounty for each switch removed.

Under the national program announced Wednesday, the auto and steel industries agreed to finance a three-year, $4 million fund to encourage automakers to collect auto switches from scrap yards. The mercury would be recycled or disposed of in landfills for hazardous waste.

In a statement, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it “continues to believe that a comprehensive strategy is necessary to reduce mercury in all consumer products.”

Some auto recyclers in Illinois already have started to remove the switches.

By the time a wrecked car or truck is fed into a crusher outside Bionic Auto Parts on Chicago’s West Side, anything that can be salvaged for resale has been stripped out.

From entire engines to radio knobs, parts are neatly stacked and lined up for resale. Now there also are bins filling rapidly with mercury switches pried out of trunks and plucked from brake systems.

“We didn’t realize this was a problem until a couple of years ago,” said owner John Catalano. “But mercury is a big issue now. We don’t want to be part of the problem.”

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