Mercury 101

Mercury: It's a BIG Problem That Stays in the Environment


Mercury is a neurotoxin that attacks the central nervous system and can impair the way humans see, hear, think, and function. A mercury thermometer contains a little less than 1 gram, which is said to be enough to contaminate all the fish in a lake with a surface area of 20 acres. Mercury thermometers are the largest single source of mercury discarded annually in the United States’ municipal solid waste stream, estimated at 17 tons of mercury per year.

When a mercury thermometer breaks in the home and the consumer fails to properly clean it up, it will eventually evaporate and can reach dangerous levels in indoor air, especially in a poorly ventilated room. The risks increase if the consumer attempts to clean up a mercury spill with a vacuum cleaner or a broom. If the mercury waste is thrown into the trash and the trash is burned in an incinerator (as Sherborn’s trash is), the risks are increased again because it is dispersed into the air as mercury vapor and spreads throughout the atmosphere, eventually making its way into the food chain by being directly deposited into lakes or as run-off from soil after rain. When mercury seeps into the waterways, a natural chemical process converts it into methyl mercury, which is more deadly to humans because it builds up in the muscle tissue of living beings.

In 2006 our state passed the Massachusetts Mercury Management Act designed to keep mercury out of our trash and wastewater. In 2008 and 2009 there was a phase-out of the sale of specific products containing mercury, including thermostats, thermometers, barometers, switches and relays. Starting in 2008, products containing mercury must be clearly labeled so that we will know to recycle or dispose of properly as hazardous waste.  

It is illegal to discharge mercury into water or wastewater without meeting state, federal and local requirements. As of  May 1, 2008, disposal of mercury-containing  products in the trash is prohibited.

rain cycle

Be informed: For more information about Mercury click here

If you have a mercury containing item such as a thermometer, you may bring it in a sealed zip lock bag to the Selectmen's Office Monday through Thursday from 9 AM to 4:30 PM  or to the Universal Waste Shed at the Transfer Station Wednesday through Sunday from 9 AM to 3 PM. Ask the attendant on duty for assistance.

Fluorescent bulbs (including straight or circular tubes and "curly" energy efficient bulbs) also contain small amounts of mercury, and should be handled as hazardous Universal Waste; our Universal Waste Shed at the Transfer Station is equipped to handle such waste. Ask the attendant on duty for assistance. 

mercury symbol When shopping, look for the mercury symbol Hg. For information on other mercury products found in the home and how to recycle them, click here or call the Mercury Hotline at (866) 9-MERCURY. 

Mercury: Path From Your Thermometer to the Food you Eat
What to Do if a Mercury Thermometer Breaks