New Jersey will become the third state in the country to require the removal of mercury switches from cars, the nation's largest manufacturing source of toxic mercury. The novel legislation, which requires automakers to pay for the removal of mercury switches from scrapped cars before they are melted down in steel mills and foundries, has already become law in Arkansas and Maine, and has been proposed in at least six other states. New Jersey Governor Richard J. Codey has signed the mercury switch legislation (A-2482/S-1292) into law.
"Momentum is building for a real reduction in mercury contamination across the country," said Jeff Gearhart, Auto Project Coordinator at the Ecology Center. "This legislation puts the onus on the automakers, where it belongs, to remove this neurotoxic contaminant from scrapped cars, where it can enter our lakes, streams and fish, and the brains of our children."
The law will prevent mercury in vehicles from escaping into the environment by providing vehicle dismantlers with a cash incentive to remove mercury switches from vehicles before they are scrapped. Auto manufacturers must reimburse the vehicle dismantlers and the state for removing mercury switches. Vehicle dismantlers will receive $2 per switch, and the state will receive 25 cents per switch to cover the cost of administering the switch removal program. The recycling of scrap vehicles in steel mills is the top source of mercury air emissions in New Jersey.
"Mercury switches create a serious health concern that also threatens to disrupt the most successful recycling program in North America," SRI President Bill Heenan said, referring to steel's recycling record, which surpasses that of all other materials.
Mercury switches are the nation's largest manufacturing source of toxic mercury. Automakers began installing mercury switches in autos more than 30 years ago, particularly for switches controlling lights in the trunk and under the hood. The mercury from these devices has been released into the environment as vehicles are scrapped at the end of their useful life. While the use of mercury in these switches was banned in 2003, more than 200 million autos containing these switches were produced between 1974 and 2003 using more than 440,000 lbs. of mercury.
Last year, more than 7 million vehicles containing mercury switches were "retired" from the road. Removing mercury switches from vehicles prevents this mercury from being vaporized as the scrap metals from these vehicles is remelted and remanufactured. The auto industry used an estimated 197 tons of mercury in vehicle switches in the U.S. and continued to use mercury switches – saving only pennies per switch – for many years after promising to switch to mercury-free alternatives.
The Arkansas bill was also a landmark bill, based on a model developed by the Partnership for Mercury Free Vehicles. Under the Arkansas law, automakers must pay $5 for each switch removed and additional $1 per switch to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Protection for program oversight. The bill passed the Arkansas legislature with a bipartisan vote – only one member voted against the bill. This legislation will also become the first law in the nation that requires auto manufacturers to report on steps taken to design vehicles and their components for recycling.
Other states, including Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are considering mercury switch removal bills.