Environmental Health
Healthy Home Environment
Household Hazardous Materials
  Mercury in Home Products  
  What Is The Problem With Mercury?  l  Products That May Contain Mercury  l

How You Can Keep Mercury From Rising  l  Other Links

What is the Problem with Mercury?

Mercury is a highly toxic element that can harm the brain, kidney, and lungs. As the only element or metal that is liquid at room temperature, it is used in many common household products and fixtures. Mercury can enter our bodies through our lungs and skin, or more commonly, by eating mercury-contaminated fish.

To reduce risks to the public and environment, Washington State has passed legislation making it illegal to sell or distribute certain mercury-containing products in Washington, these include thermometers, manometers (blood pressure measuring devices), and novelty items such as toys, games, jewelry, or decorations that contain mercury. (For additional information for businesses, see Mercury in Business.)

Fetuses and Children at High Risk

Fetuses and children are at the highest risk from mercury, because it keeps their brains and nervous systems from developing normally. Mercury readily crosses the placenta, and concentrates in fetal blood at levels 30 times higher than in the mother.

Wildlife such as loons, otters, and other fish-eating creatures are also at risk from mercury poisoning.

Mercury Pollution

Mercury enters the air, land, and water from many sources. In Washington state, the top three sources from human activities are diesel fuel combustion, coal-fired power plants, and wastewater treatment plants. Municipal and medical waste combustion are also large sources. Mercury does not break down in the environment, it is "persistent" and builds up in the food chain (bioaccumulates).

We add to mercury pollution if we throw a mercury product in the trash or wash it down the drain. Each year, broken fluorescent lamps in Washington release as much as 1,800 pounds of mercury. Thermostats and dental amalgam add an estimated 400 pounds each. Broken thermometers may add up to 300 pounds.

Products That May Contain Mercury

  • thermometers (looks like a silvery liquid)
  • thermostats
  • blood-pressure cuffs
  • barometers
  • fluorescent and high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps
  • mercurochrome
  • auto switches
  • float switches
  • button-cell batteries
  • old latex paint (pre-1990)
  • some oil-based paints
  • old alkaline batteries (pre-1996)
  • old light-up tennis shoes (pre-1997 LA gear)
  • chemistry sets
  • old fungicides for seeds and turf
  • dental amalgam
  • some imported jewelry (glass ampules with silver liquid)
  • weight/counterweight in grandfather clocks

Amount of Mercury in Products

Product Amount of Mercury*
Fluorescent light bulbs 0 - 50mg
Pocket Calculator 0 - 50mg
LCDs 0 - 50mg
Button-cell batteries (watches) 0 - 100mg
Thermostats 10mg - 1000mg
Switches 10mg - 1000mg
Dental amalgam 100mg to 1000mg
Thermometers 0mg to 3g
Older pressure gauges 3g - 10g
Manometers and barometers 50g to several pounds
Plumbing traps 100g to several pounds

*Figures taken from Purdue University and NEWMOA (Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association) Mercury in Products database.

How You Can Keep Mercury from Rising

Avoid Buying Products with Mercury

Most products have a mercury-free alternative:

  • Fluorescent bulbs All fluorescent bulbs contain mercury. Some brands may contain less, and may be marked with green end caps or labeled low-mercury. Fluorescents are still a good choice for reducing mercury in the environment, because their use saves energy. Coal-fired power plants release a lot more mercury into the environment than broken fluorescent bulbs. Recycle fluorescent bulbs by bringing them to a hazardous waste collection site.
  • Thermometers Most thermometers sold locally are mercury-free. Choices include digital, alcohol (usually a red liquid), solar, and card thermometers. Not sure if your thermometer contains mercury? Look for the SILVER mercury inside - not red, blue, or purple. (Digital thermometers do not contain liquid mercury.)
  • Thermostats The older, round thermostats have a mercury switch inside. You can replace them with a programmable, electric thermostat, which does not contain mercury.
  • Dental fillings The amalgam used for dental fillings can contain 50% mercury, 25% silver, and 25% a mixture of copper, zinc, and tin. Ask your dentist about alternatives.

Dispose of Mercury Products Responsibly

Take unwanted household products containing mercury to HazoHouse at the Thurston County Waste and Recovery Center. HazoHouse is open daily. This service is free to households, but businesses must register and pay a fee (call 360-867-2491). Do not break fluorescent bulbs*; transport them in their original boxes if possible. Place thermometers in their original containers, too, or in two zip-lock plastic bags.

Learn to Clean Up Mercury Spills

Avoid breathing vapors or touching broken materials.

Do not vacuum or sweep.

  1. Avoid breathing vapors. Quickly open a window and have everyone leave the room.
  2. Let vapors vent for 10 minutes while collecting clean up supplies.
  3. Do not touch, vacuum, or sweep broken materials.
  4. Use stiff paper or cardboard to pick up large pieces.
  5. Use duct tape to pick up small pieces and powder.
  6. Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel.
  7. Place all materials in a sealed, air tight container, preferably a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.
  8. Wash your hands.
  9. Dispose of at HazoHouse not in your trash.

Follow Fish consumption Advisories

People are often exposed to mercury by eating contaminated fish.

The mercury in fish has been converted to methylmercury, which is more toxic than the element found in household products. Unborn children are most at risk from methylmercury poisoning.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) has issued fish consumption advisories for Lake Whatcom, Eagle Harbor, Lake Roosevelt, and Sinclair Inlet due to mercury contamination. None of these sites are in Thurston County. Budd Inlet does have a warning not to harvest seafood due to creosote and other chemicals.

When DOH issues a statewide fish advisory.

This advisory warns women of childbearing age and children under six not to eat any shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, or tuna steak due to mercury contamination. Guidelines for the amount of canned tuna that women of childbearing age and children under six can safely eat are based on how much a person weighs. For example, a 135 pound young woman should eat less than one 6 ounce can of tuna per week, and a five year old child who weighs about 45 pounds should eat no more than two tablespoons of canned tuna per week.

For more information on fish advisories, see the WA State Dept of Health, Fish Facts for Nutritious Health, or call 877-485-7316.

More Information

For additional information, click on any of the links below:

Hot Topics
Fluorescent Bulbs
Popular Pages & Links

Dispose of Hazardous Materials


(recorded line)

Open Daily
8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Gates close at 4:45 p.m.

View Map
  • Household Hazardous Materials
  • Email
    Your Questions or Comments
This page last updated: 05/19/21