Washington State Department of Ecology - September 24, 2013

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Auto recyclers help state collect toxic mercury from salvaged cars

OLYMPIA – A Washington program to collect automotive switches that contain mercury collected its 200,000th switch in August, preventing 445 pounds of this toxic substance from entering the environment and threatening human health.

Automobile recyclers in Washington have been collecting mercury switches from the hoods and trunks of scrap vehicles since 2006. Mercury switches were used until 2003 for convenience lights under hoods and in trunks, as well as in early anti-lock braking and airbag systems. In 2003, mercury switches were phased out. But many of these older cars are still on the road.

If mercury switches are not removed, mercury escapes into the air and contaminates soils and stormwater when these vehicles are crushed, stored and recycled. Mercury can evaporate into the air and be deposited into water and soil. Fish collect mercury in their bodies. This can then be a source of mercury exposure to people who consume the fish.

Children and fetuses are the most vulnerable to the effects of mercury. Exposure can permanently affect learning and behavior later in life.

Washington's program is a partnership between the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology), the Automotive Recyclers of Washington Association and End-of-Life Vehicle Solutions, an organization of vehicle manufacturers that no longer use mercury switches.

"The Auto Recyclers of Washington are proud to partner with Ecology to recover these mercury switches," said Don Phelps, the group's president and an auto recycler for 45 years. "Auto recyclers are the best example of managing end-of-life vehicles by recovering and selling used parts, which protects the environment and saves consumers a great deal of money as compared to new parts."

End-of-life vehicles are the most reused and recycled waste stream in the world.

K Seiler, manager of Ecology's Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction Program, said: "Because mercury is so toxic, a very small amount can affect human health and the environment. Through a small financial incentive and assistance from Ecology, this program has helped businesses prevent the release of hundreds of pounds of mercury."

The Legislature provided funding that is expected to keep the mercury switch collection program operating until 2017.

The statewide program relies on auto recyclers – including dismantlers, wrecking yards and scrap metal processors – who voluntarily remove and properly dispose of switches before sending vehicles to scrap metal recyclers. Auto recyclers participating in the program are reimbursed $3 per switch.

Russ Spalding from Spalding Auto Parts in Spokane said: "This program has provided the guidance, training and respective support necessary to focus our entire industry toward a common good."

Nucor in Seattle melts down the scrap metal from recycled vehicles. The removal of mercury switches means they emit less mercury in the process. Bart Kale, Nucor's safety and environmental manager, said: "Anything we can do to keep mercury out of the scrap steel feedstock we depend on is worth the effort and we're encouraged by the results. It's a great example of business and government working together to make things happen."

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Media Contacts:

Kathy Davis, 360-407-6149, kathy.davis@ecy.wa.gov
Aurana Lewis, hazardous waste specialist, 425-649-7065, aule461@ecy.wa.gov
Gary Smith, Auto Recyclers of Washington, 360-485-3336, arrow@sisomedia.com

More information:

Auto Mercury Switch Removal Program (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/mercury/mercury_auto_switch_program.html)

Automotive Recyclers of Washington Association (http://www.a-r-a.org/)

Ecology's social media (www.ecy.wa.gov/about/newmedia.html)

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Note: K is the full spelling of K Seiler’s first name.