For the Birds Radio Program: Recycle Mercury Items

Original Air Date: March 16, 2004 (estimated date)

Mercury is in way more objects than Laura realized.

Audio missing


Recycle mercury thermometers, button batteries, fluorescent bulbs, and other mercury-containing objects.

Mercury is toxic to humans, birds, and other living things. Consumption of mercury-contaminated fish by birds such as eagles, loons, and herons results in the accumulation of methylmercury in their tissues where it continues to build up over the life of the bird. Neurological damage and reproductive failure from mercury poisoning have been found in many species of birds. Bald Eagle eggs often fail to hatch when mercury in them is concentrated to more than 1.0 parts per million. Concentrations as high as 19.1 parts per million, levels which cause sterility, have been found in feathers of eagle chicks. Some adult birds have been killed outright by high concentrations. In others, flight has been impaired, aberrant behaviors occurred, and kidney lesions have developed.

In August 2002, the National Wildlife Federation produced a pamphlet, Mercury Products Guide: The Hidden Dangers of Mercury, A Resource Guide for Procurement Officers and Consumers about Mercury in Products and their Alternatives, which states:

“Once mercury enters the water, it has the potential to be converted into methylmercury by microorganisms and bacteria. The characteristics of methylmercury enable it to bioaccumulate as it passes through the food chain from one organism to another. Mercury builds up so efficiently in the aquatic food web that fish at the top of the food chain (such as salmon, lake trout, swordfish, sea bass, walleye, and tuna) can have mercury concentrations more than one million times higher than the surrounding water. Since these and other species are among the fish that people like to catch and eat, mercury contamination poses a serious public health threat. Mercury’s effects on the developing nervous system of human beings are similar to those of lead. Delayed mental development, learning disabilities, and delayed development or deficits in language, motor functions, attention and memory are all possible outcomes from exposure to mercury. The populations most at risk are fetuses and young children, but Native American subsistence anglers, low-income anglers, sports fishers and those who eat a lot of fish are also at risk. Animals that eat fish, including predatory mammals such as panthers, whales, seals and predatory birds like eagles and loons are extremely vulnerable to mercury contamination. Wildlife health problems include reduced reproductive success, impaired growth and development, behavioral abnormalities and even death at high exposure levels.”

Although coal-burning power plants are one of the biggest sources of atmospheric mercury, incinerating garbage is also a huge source. Making sure our garbage doesn’t contain mercury is critical. Unfortunately, mercury is added to products that most of us don’t even think about. Most car door and refrigerator lights are triggered by a mercury switch. Some gas-fired stoves and dryers contain mercury flame sensors as a safety device. Products that contain an automatic shut-off switch, such as steam irons, curling irons, space heaters, and sump pumps, usually contain mercury. Fluorescent bulbs, halogen lights, neon lights, and many automobile headlamps contain mercury. Some computer monitor screens, especially laptops, contain mercury in the backlighting mechanism. Portable phones with a mute or privacy switch have mercury, too. Even some cosmetics contain mercury as a preservative.

When we dispose of these items, whether our garbage is placed into landfills or incinerated, mercury can be released to the environment, either seeping into groundwater or going into the atmosphere to come back down to earth in rain.

By recycling every household item that has mercury, we limit our own contribution to the mercury in the environment. If enough people were aware of this important issue and aware of just how many common household objects contain mercury, and enough of us refused to buy products with mercury in the first place, corporations would seek out or develop safer alternatives.

The National Wildlife Federation’s Mercury Products Guide, which contains detailed information about household products which contain mercury, is available on the Internet through their website,, or you can find it on my webpage at