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Mercury and Automobiles

What You Need to Know

Mercury, a silver-colored liquid metal, is extremely toxic to the nervous system and may impair the way we see, hear, walk, and talk. When spilled, mercury can evaporate at room temperature and the vapors cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. In the environment, mercury can be converted into a form that is especially toxic and can build up in fish tissue.

Because of its potential to pose long-lasting health and environmental risks, mercury has become a high-profile toxic waste. Some cars may contain no mercury components, while others may contain several. Removal of mercury switches from vehicles before crushing is an important part of managing your hazardous wastes. Certain components containing mercury must be managed as hazardous wastes.


In Utah, hazardous waste regulations govern the storage and regulation of mercury-containing devices. Under Utah’s Universal Waste regulations, only mercury thermostats and fluorescent lamps are exempt from hazardous waste requirements.

There are various sources of mercury in automobiles, including:

  • Light Switches (e.g., tilt switches used on under hood and truck lighting)
  • Anti-lock Braking Systems
  • Active Ride Control or Ride Leveling Sensors
  • High Intensity Discharge Systems (headlights, tail lamps)
  • Virtual Image Instrument Panel

Mercury switches should be removed and recycled prior to storage, disposal, or crushing of the vehicle. Unusable parts that are removed from vehicles and contain mercury cannot be disposed of in landfills or incinerated. They must be managed as hazardous waste. The hazardous waste rules cover storage, transportation, record keeping, and reporting. Depending on how much hazardous waste you generate, you may need to obtain an EPA hazardous waste number.

Mercury Regulations

Self-Audit Checklist

When an inspector comes to your facility, there are certain things he or she checks to see if you are in compliance with environmental regulations. It makes good sense for you to perform a “self-audit” and catch and correct problems before they result in penalties. Also, there are some compliance incentives associated with self-audits.

Use the following list to audit your mercury management program:

  1. Have all mercury switches been removed? Check to make sure that all components that may contain mercury have been removed and recycled prior to storing, disposal, or crushing of the vehicle.
  2. Have you followed the hazardous waste management requirements for handling mercury? Verify that you are adhering to the RCRA requirements for handling hazardous waste.

Best Management Practices (BMPs)

Most regulations tell you what you have to do to be in compliance, but they don’t explain how to do it. That’s where “best management practices” come into play. BMPs are proven methods that help you to get into compliance and stay there.

The following BMPs are recommended for management and disposal of vehicle parts containing mercury:

  • Train all employees who handle or manage mercury-added products in proper handling and emergency procedures for these products and for mercury.
  • Remove all mercury switches from the vehicle as soon as possible.
  • Be careful not to break or puncture the mercury container during removal.
  • If a mercury-containing device breaks, at a minimum, seal the device, the released mercury, and cleanup debris in a plastic bag and transfer to a closed compatible container labeled “Hazardous Waste” (with a description of the contents), and manage as a hazardous waste.
  • Store mercury switches in a leak-proof, closed container. Store in a way that will prevent the capsules from breaking.
  • Label storage containers with “Spent Mercury-Containing Devices for Recycling” or “Waste/Used Mercury Devices.”
  • Be able to demonstrate that you have not had the devices stored for more than one year. This can be done by keeping a log or shipping papers, or by labeling storage containers with the accumulation start date.
  • Recycle mercury switches with a licensed metals recycler that reclaims mercury.

DEQ has compiled the following documents to help with Best Management Practices for Auto Recyclers:


For more information, contact:

To report a spill or leak, call:

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