January 2005

King County finds opportunity to reduce mercury pollution and share recycling expertise with auto dismantlers

Seattle, WA— A pilot program managed by King County Solid Waste Division and the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program is helping public and private vehicle fleet managers and technicians safely remove and recover mercury-containing “tilt switches” in many vehicles.

Twelve fleets are participating in the pilot project:

• AAA of Washington
• City of Auburn
• City of Bellevue
• King County Fleet Division
• City of Seattle, Charles St.
Garage
• City of Renton
• U.S. General Services Adminis-
tration, EPA Region 10
• King County Metro Transit
• King County Solid Waste Divi-
sion
• Port of Seattle
• City of Tukwila
• University of Washington

A little-known but significant source of mercury pollution, tilt switches turn on trunk and hood convenience lights when the trunk lid or hood is raised.  Each switch contains more than a gram of mercury. The Local Hazardous Waste Management Program estimates that between 35 to 108 pounds of mercury from switches are released from end-of-life vehicles each year in King County.

“We’ve had terrific cooperation from fleet managers and technicians; they are doing a great job of voluntarily reducing mercury pollution,” said King County Executive Ron Sims.

Mercury from tilt switches is released into the environment when vehicles are shredded and smelted for recycling.  Mercury is highly toxic, and human exposure to mercury can occur from eating mercury-contaminated fish.  Removing or replacing the switches with ball-bearing switches is a key step in reducing the amount of mercury released into the environment.

Solid Waste Division program manager Alexandra Thompson would like to see other counties introduce similar programs.  “This program is a significant part of the effort to reduce mercury pollution from vehicles in King County.  This is a source of pollution that very few people even know about, so it shows once again how public agencies do a great job of educating and protecting the public,” she said.

Thompson said the program would collect more than 500 switches by the end of the year. The program provides collection buckets, replacement switches, how-to documents on proper removal and replacement of mercury switches, and lists of vehicles likely to have the mercury switches to fleet maintenance supervisors. Solid Waste Division staff collects the switches from participating shops and take them to a hazardous waste collection facility so the mercury can be safely managed.

Removing and recycling mercury-containing switches from vehicle trunk and hood lighting

Background: Mercury tilt switches are located in the hood and trunk light systems of many cars on the road today. The switches, or pellets, are enclosed in a plastic housing assembly. Mercury is also found in some antilock brake systems, navigational lights, high intensity discharge headlights, vehicle entertainment systems, and after-market security systems.
The Local Hazardous Waste Program in King County is working with fleets to assist in the removal of mercury-containing vehicle switches in trunk and hood lighting. It is a relatively simple process to remove and recycle these switches, and avoid detrimental impacts of mercury releases to the environment.

Why is This Important? 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 small switch (about the size of a pea) can contaminate a 20-acre lake, and persists in the environment for years without breaking down. It tends to accumulate in higher concentrations as it moves up the food chain, especially in certain fish species.
Collectively, an estimated 35 to 108 pounds of mercury from switches is released from end of life vehicles (ELV) each year in King County. Typically, ELVs are dismantled, crushed, shredded, and incinerated in electric arc furnaces (to make new steel). It is possible that dismantling crushing and shredding of ELVs releases some mercury, and it is certain that incineration of the recycled steel emits mercury to the atmosphere.

Which Vehicles have Mercury Switches? Generally, American-made cars manufactured before 2001 or foreign 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. Most “Big 3” vehicles sampled in a Minnesota pilot removal project, had at least one standard or optional hood or trunk switch containing mercury. A list of vehicles with convenience lighting mercury switches is attached. If your fleet vehicles are the types noted on the list, and you are interested in participating, please contact us at the numbers/e-mails listed below for assistance.

Removal Only, or Removal and Replacement? These convenience hood and trunk lights are non-essential. Anecdotal data suggest that potential new owners of 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 EPA can provide replacement switches until the existing supply runs out. These switches are universal, and can replace all trunk and hood switches in GM and Ford models. Direct switch replacement is not possible in most older Chrysler models, and certain older Volvos that contain a glass ampoule containing mercury.

How Is a Switch Removed? Removal is fairly simple once the assembly is found under the hood or trunk. The Clean Car Campaign 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. Download these procedures with photos at www.ecocenter.org-/autoswitch.shtml.

How Long Does It Take to Remove and Replace A Lighting Switch? It takes between 30 seconds to about five minutes to remove the mercury switch from most convenience lighting assemblies. Some older Chrysler models may slightly longer. Oregon’s replacement program for in-use vehicles has found that with a little practice, they can actually pull the old mercury switch and replace it with a non-mercury ball-bearing switch in about 5 minutes. One Chrysler assembly is the exception to this. 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.

What About the Disposing Removed Switches? The mercury switches must be stored in a labeled, plastic, airtight container. The container with about one pound of mercury should be recycled with a licensed mercury reclaimer or a hazardous waste company within 3 years. Estimated disposal costs are about $50 per pound of mercury.

What Other Fleets are Removing Vehicle Switches? The Washington State Department of Ecology and Snohomish County removed switches in their fleet vehicles. King County has begun a switch removal program in its fleet. Other participants include the City of Seattle, City of Bellevue, Port of Seattle, University of Washington, City of Renton, and the AAA of Washington.

More Information:
Visit the Clean Car Campaign: www.ecocenter.org/autoswitch.shtml.

King County Contact: Alexandra Thompson, Solid Waste Division, 206-296-8454.


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