Aside from the obvious contaminants of Freon, transmission and brake fluids and used motor oil, there is one that slides under the radar for most: mercury. Up until 2003 mercury was one of the components in the convenience lights of hoods and trunks, as well as in antilock braking systems. For example, vehicles may contain up to two grams of mercury in their hood and trunk light switches alone- mercury that can be released into the environment when cars are crushed for scrap metal recycling. The mercury switches in are one of the nations’ largest sources of mercury contamination.
Most people don’t realize what environmental nightmares salvage yards can be, but salvage yards in Indiana are pairing up with the state’s environmental department to ensure that those nightmares don’t become reality for the citizens there.
When mercury switches are not removed from inoperable vehicles before they are crushed or shredded, mercury can evaporate into the air and be deposited into the surrounding water and soil. Runoff of from mercury contaminated soil ends up in ground water, streams and lakes. Because fish collect mercury in their bodies, fishing and consumption of fish harvested from mercury contaminated waters can be a source of mercury exposure for people. Mercury is a strong neurotoxin that can be harmful to the health of humans and wildlife. Mercury poses the biggest threat to children and fetuses and even small amounts can create behavioral and learning problems later in life.
In response to the need to facilitate the safe recovery of mercury switches from end of life motor vehicles, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has issued funding provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay a bounty of $3.00 per mercury switch recovered from salvaged automobiles. IDEM is working in conjunction with the Automotive Recyclers Association of Indiana (ARI) to educate auto recyclers throughout Indiana on the safe removal and handling of the mercury switches. In 2008, ARI together with IDEM hosted a presentation on the safe removal of mercury switches and how to collect the $3.00 fee. IDEM’s goal is to establish a partnership between itself and the auto recycling facilities of Indiana. The mercury switch recovery program is a win-win situation for both the government and the auto recycling industry and has gone a long way toward cementing ties between the two. IDEM is also introducing a new program called the Environmental Results Program. This volunteer program, which is supported and endorsed by the ARI, is an alternative to traditional permitting that requires self audits with accompanying self certification to validate compliance with environmental requirements.
Currently, 95% of the 200,000 end of life vehicles are recycled in Indiana are recycled each year diverting approximately 103,000 tons of recyclable materials away from landfills. Salvage yards in Indiana and around the country have spent over $50 million on environmental compliance and are working everyday to preserve our precious natural resources and to prevent the contamination of our air and water.