With many individuals working from home, you may be choosing this time to de-clutter your space! There are potentially hazardous materials you may come across when spring cleaning, such as certain lightbulbs, thermostats, and batteries. Learn how to identify and manage elemental mercury, mercury-containing devices, and other difficult to manage or hazardous wastes.

What is mercury?

Mercury is the only metal that is a liquid at room temperature. It is used in household items and electronics. However, mercury is also a hazardous material because it is a neurotoxin that can lead to physical impairment, muscle weakness, and loss of peripheral vision. When items that contain mercury are thrown in the trash, that mercury enters our air and water, accumulating throughout the food chain. For example, you may have heard about high levels of mercury in certain kinds of seafood. Mercury pollution is a global problem and residents have been cautioned to limit eating fish caught in certain lakes and rivers due to elevated mercury levels. It is important that we do our part and keep mercury out of the environment by properly disposing of items that contain mercury.

Elemental Mercury

Elemental mercury is a silver, odorless liquid metal that is often found stored in garages and storage areas. For example, you may find elemental mercury in a house that was inherited from a relative that may have had a home lab, which was common in dental practices. Mercury must be kept in a glass or plastic jar as it will corrode a metal container. Make sure that the jar has a lid and is not stored in a location where it can fall and break. It is also important to put it in a secondary container, such as a plastic tub with a lid or zipped plastic bag. If some kind of breakage occurs in the process of proper disposal, then the secondary container will keep the spillage contained. If you have elemental liquid mercury, do not transport it yourself or throw it in the trash! Call the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Mercury Hotline at 1-866-9-MERCURY for more information.

What in my home may contain mercury?

  • Fluorescent light bulbs & tubes, including CFL bulbs

All fluorescent lamps (even with green-tip ends) contain mercury and come in several shapes, such as compact, straight tube, circular, and u-bend. Look out for a Hg symbol! Metal Halide and Mercury Vapor lamps, often found in used commercial properties, must be recycled. Check with your town to see if they have a universal waste shed or another collection program for fluorescent bulbs. Contact local hardware stores to see if they have “take-back” programs.

 

  • Thermostats & thermometers

A small glass mercury thermometer contains 1 gram of mercury, which is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake and result in 1 ton of fish unfit to eat!  Dial thermostats often contain mercury. Replacing your old dial thermostat with a programmable digital thermostat will help you save energy and money. After removing the thermostat from the wall, handle it carefully and do not attempt to separate the mercury ampoule.  Take mercury thermometers and thermostats to your universal waste shed or a Household Hazardous Waste Event.

  • Button cell batteries & switches

Lithium, rechargeable, NiCad, lead-acid, and button batteries, used in watches or hearing aids, contain mercury and other heavy metals. Disposable alkaline (9V, AA, AAA) batteries do not contain mercury and are safe to dispose of in the trash. Mercury tilt relay switches, used in old heaters or air conditioners, also contain significant amounts of elemental mercury. Any switch that feels oddly heavy for its size should be evaluated to see if it contains mercury and then properly disposed of at your town’s next Household Hazardous Waste Day. Check with your local recycling department, Department of Public Works, or Health Department for more details on battery recycling.

  • Other Items that May Contain Mercury

Mercury was used in barometers to measure air pressure, which can forecast changes in weather. Vintage items may contain mercury, such as antique clocks. Additionally, mercury was once used as a reflective coating for mirrors.

What do I do if I find one of these items?

The first step is to prevent breakage! Keep the mercury-containing item in a secondary container in case it breaks, such as a plastic tub with a lid or a zipped plastic bag. Next, locate a mercury-containing device disposal site. Your town may offer year-round collection programs such as a universal waste shed.

Check with your local Department of Public Works or Board of Health to see if your town is holding a Household Hazardous Waste Event or if you’re able to attend another town’s event for a fee.  Call MassDEP Mercury Hotline at 866-9-Mercury or 866-963-7287 for more information.

If mercury spills, follow proper clean-up procedure as detailed by MassDEP.

Other Difficult to Manage Hazardous Wastes

  • Paint

You may have old paint cans stored in the garage or basement. There are generally two types of paint: water-based (latex) and oil-based. Water-based paint in good condition can be recycled into new paint. If latex paint has been frozen or is no longer usable, it can be disposed of in the trash once solidified with paint hardener, kitty litter, sawdust, or shredded paper. Oil-based paints, stains, and solvents contain potentially poisonous emissions and must be disposed of at household hazardous waste events. Some communities have “Used Paint Sheds” where residents may bring usable paint to swap. Check with your community to see if this option is available. Some places, such as Recolor Paints, will take leftover paint for recycling. Habitat for Humanity Restores may accept unopened cans of latex paint for resale.

  • Sharps

Since 2012, there has been a statewide ban on the disposal of needles, syringes, and lancets in household trash. Put sharps in a secure rigid plastic container. Many towns provide sharps containers. Do NOT put the sharps container in the trash or recycling. Contact your local Board of Health for collection sites. The MassDEP also has a list of sharps disposal sites here.

  • Unused Medications

Do not flush! This improper method of disposal can negatively affect aquatic life and water quality. Check with your local community for take-back events and official drop off locations. MassDEP has a map to help you find a waste medication kiosk near you!

  • Propane tanks

Propane tanks containing fuel under pressure may explode if the tank is damaged, causing severe injury or death. Before recycling, try to use up all of the residual gas and close the valve to avoid a fire hazard and air pollution. Tanks can be recycled in a municipal tank collection program, or many places that sell propane also offer recycling.

Resources:

Recycle Smart MA: Can I recycle this? A guide for common recyclables and a search tool for difficult to manage items.

MassDEP Safely Manage Hazardous Household Products

MassDEP Textile Recovery and Beyond the Bin Directory: A location directory for item such as clothing and electronics.

Donation Guidance for Building Materials to donate or purchase when remodeling.