King County Works with Fleets to Remove Mercury Danger

November 2005, Government Fleet - Feature

King County, Wash., has developed a reclamation program to facilitate removal of dangerous mercury switches from fleet vehicles in the region. When a car is recycled or wrecked, mercury - a neurotoxin that causes serious brain and nervous system damage in humans and wildlife - can be released. The amount of mercury in one single switch (about the size of a pea) can contaminate a 20-acre lake and persists in the environment for years without breaking down. Mercury tilt switches are located in the hood and trunk light systems of many vehicles on the road today. The switches, or pellets, are enclosed in a plastic housing assembly. Mercury is also found in some anti-lock brake systems, navigational lights, high-intensity discharge headlights, vehicle entertainment systems, and aftermarket security systems. Generally, American-made cars manufactured before 2001 or import-badged cars made before 1992 likely contain switches and should be inspected for mercury switches. Later American models may still have been manufactured with mercury switches; however, it is expected that model-years beyond 2003 will not contain them. Mercury Reclamation Programs
The Local Hazardous Waste Program in King County is working with local fleets to assist in the removal of mercury-containing vehicle switches in trunk and hood lighting. Besides King County, other public fleets in the region are working on the mercury problem, including the Washington State Department of Ecology, Snohomish County, city of Seattle, city of Bellevue, Port of Seattle, University of Washington, city of Renton, and the AAA of Washington.Removal vs. Replacement
Anecdotal data suggest that potential new owners of used fleet vehicles rarely notice or care about the absence of trunk or hood lights. However, if the participating fleet is interested in replacing the mercury pellets with a non-mercury ball-bearing switch, King County and the Region 10, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) usually are able to provide replacement switches. These switches are universal and can replace all trunk and hood switches in GM and Ford models. Removal is fairly simple once the assembly is found under the hood or trunk. The Clean Car Campaign, an environmental advocacy and education program, has more specific removal procedures for the 1985-1995 Chrysler hood lighting assembly, Ford hood and trunk lighting assembly, 1998 Ford trunk lighting assembly, 1970-1998 GM trunk lighting assembly, 1970-1998 GM hood lighting assembly, and 1980-1998 GM rectangular hood lighting assembly.A Quick Process
It takes between 30 seconds and about five minutes to remove the mercury switch from most convenience lighting assemblies. A label or sign should be put on vehicles where the mercury lighting switches have been removed, so that future owners or recyclers do not have to inspect for mercury. The mercury switches must be stored in a labeled, plastic, airtight container. A container with about 1 lb. of mercury should be recycled with a licensed mercury reclaimer or a hazardous waste company within three years. Estimated disposal costs are about $50 per lb. of mercury.

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