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Products containing mercury

Mercury is used in a wide variety of household products. These items release mercury into the environment and home when broken, mishandled or disposed of. Proper care is important when dealing with mercury-containing products. If spilled, mercury absorbs into many household materials while slowly evaporating into the air over time, allowing for exposure. Knowing what products and items contain mercury and handling them properly will limit the risk of mercury exposure. Common products often have a simple and environmentally friendly alternative. Some examples are listed below:

Photo of thermometerThermometers—Mercury is used in thermometers because it expands and contracts evenly with temperature changes. Alternatives include the electronic (digital) or red alcohol thermometers.

Household switches and thermostats—Mercury conducts electricity and is used in many household and appliance switches, including switches found inside appliances. Examples of appliances that have mercury switches are thermostats, clothing irons and top-loading freezers and washing machines.  Mechanical and electronic switches are available in mercury-free versions.

Photo of fluorescent bulbsHousehold bulbs—Fluorescent, high-intensity discharge (HID) and neon lamps contain mercury, often in vaporform. Mercury is released when bulbs are broken or incinerated.

HID bulbs are often used in settings that require high amounts of light, such as gymnasiums and shopping centers. Fluorescent lamps are good energy savers, using up to 50 percent less electricity than incandescent lights. This energy savings reduces mercury emissions from power plants. Alternatives are labeled as low-mercury lamps and often can be recognized by their green endcaps or green lettering. Do not confuse low-mercury lamps with energy-efficient lamps; low-mercury lamps use about the same amount of energy as normal flourescent bulbs. 

Batteries—Before 1980, most batteries used in homes contained mercury. Current mercury batteries are "button" shaped and are used in hearing aids, watches and other items requiring a small battery. In the last decade, the United States battery industry achieved a 99 percent reduction in mercury by using alternative materials. Silver oxide, zinc-air, and alkaline batteries are the best alternatives for replacing batteries produced before 1994.

Photo of open paint cansPaints—Latex paint produced before 1992 had large amounts of mercury to prevent fungus growth. Mercury vapors were released when paint was applied. Use latex paint manufactured after 1992. 

Old chemistry sets and toys—Children's chemistry sets were once sold with liquid mercury. Some toys contain a drop of mercury that is moved through a maze, called a mercury maze. Check chemistry sets and toys to be sure they are mercury-free.

Athletic shoes—Some athletic shoes with flashing lights in the soles contain mercury.

Pesticides— Fungicides and biocides produced before 1994 used mercury toxins to kill fungus, weeds and other pests. Most new pesticides are mercury-free.

Clothing irons—Some irons have an automatic shut-off switch containing mercury. Irons with mercury-free automatic shut-off switches are available.

Medical products—Mercurochrome is a skin antiseptic used to treat cuts and abrasions. It is not commonly used. Mercury-free alternatives include Neosporin and Mycin.

Thimerosal (about 48% mercury) has been used in antiseptic creams and as preservatives in pharmaceutical solutions including contact lens solutions. While most antiseptics are now free of  Thimerosal, it can be present in older medications and creams. Talk to your pharmacist about alternatives.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers a list of drug and biologic products containing mercury.

Photo of blood pressure gaugeBlood pressure gauges—Home blood pressure gauges contain almost 1.5 pounds of mercury. An aneroid blood-pressure unit is a mercury-free option. 

Microwave Ovens—Mercury vapor bulbs were used in older microwave ovens. However, new models do not contain mercury.

Barometers— A barometer is an instrument used to measure pressure in the atmosphere; most of the older devices contain liquid mercury. A Bourdon tube gauge is an alternative to mercury-containing barometers. If you are unsure if your barometer contains mercury, check for a silvery substance in the tube, or call the household hazardous waste facility to assist you at 281-8915.

Information on this page was provided by Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.state.oh.us