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Information for Consumers

Other Information for Consumers

Mercury is contained in some of the fish we eat, whether caught in local lakes and streams or bought in a grocery store.  Mercury is also contained in some of the products we use, which may be found in your home, at the dentist, and at schools. This page provides links to information about sources of mercury exposure, potential health effects, fish that may contain mercury, consumer products that contain mercury, and ways to reduce your exposure to mercury.

General Information

Basic Information - General information about mercury, including what it is, where it comes from, how it is used, and how it moves through the environment.

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Batteries

Most batteries made in the U.S. do not contain added mercury. The two exceptions are mercuric oxide batteries and button cell batteries.  Mercuric oxide batteries are produced for specialized use in military and medical equipment where a stable current and long service life is essential.  Button cell batteries are miniature batteries in the shape of a coin or button that are used to provide power for a large variety of small portable electronic devices.

The use and disposal of mercury-added button cells are unregulated at the federal level. They do not have to be labeled; it is legal to dispose of them in the household trash; and they rarely are collected for recycling in most U.S. jurisdictions.  Some states are now considering whether the disposal of button cell batteries should be regulated or whether recycling should be encouraged.  Because button batteries currently are not widely targeted for recycling, almost all of this mercury presumably ends up in the municipal solid waste stream where it is either incinerated or landfilled.

For a more information on batteries, see EPA’s Web page on Consumer and Commercial Products.

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Human Exposure

Mercury exists in various forms, and people are exposed to each in different ways.

Methylmercury Exposure - The most common way that people in the U.S. are exposed to mercury is by eating fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury.

Elemental Mercury Exposure - A less common source of exposure is when liquid elemental mercury is spilled or a device or product containing elemental mercury breaks, thus allowing the mercury to evaporate and become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor.

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Health Effects

Mercury exists in three chemical forms: methlymercury, elemental mercury, and other mercury compounds. Each chemical form of mercury has its own specific effects on human health.

Whether an exposure to the various forms of mercury will harm a person's health depends on a number of factors: the dose; the age of the person exposed (the fetus and young children are most susceptible); the duration of exposure; the route of exposure -- inhalation, ingestion, dermal contact, etc.; and the health of the person exposed.

Almost all people have at least trace amounts of methylmercury in their tissues, reflecting methylmercury’s widespread presence in the environment and people’s exposure through the consumption of fish and shellfish.

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Fish Consumption

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children’s proper growth and development. 

However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. For most people, the risk from exposure to methylmercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system.  The risks from methlymercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of methylmercury in the fish. Federal, state and local governments issue fish advisories when the fish are unsafe to eat.

Fish Consumption Advice - This page provides links to extensive information on fish advisories, including advisories issued by state and local governments and by the EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Fish Kids - This Web site uses interactive stories and games to teach kids ages 8-12 about contaminants in fish and fish advisories.

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Mercury-Containing Products

Elemental mercury has properties that have led to its use in many different products and industrial sectors. While some manufacturers have reduced or eliminated their use of mercury in products, there are still many consumer items in the marketplace that contain mercury. EPA encourages individuals, organizations and businesses to use non-mercury alternatives and to recycle used mercury-containing products whenever possible.

Consumer and Commercial Products - This Web page provides more extensive information on mercury-containing products, plus links to related information from other federal agencies, state environmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Interstate Mercury Education & Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC) Mercury-Added Products Database Exit EPA Disclaimer- The IMERC database is managed by the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA).  It presents information on: (1) the amount and purpose of mercury in specific products that are sold in eight IMERC-member states; (2) the total amount of mercury in these products sold nationally in a given year; and (3) the manufacturers of these products. The information is submitted to IMERC by or on behalf of product manufacturers in compliance with laws in the eight states of Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Notification requirements have been in effect for products manufactured or distributed in these states beginning in January 2001. The information is updated every three years.

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Thimerosal in Vaccines

Some consumers are concerned about the use of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, in vaccines. Since 2001, with the exception of some influenza (flu) vaccines, thimerosal is not used as a preservative in routinely recommended childhood vaccines.

To learn more about this use of thimerosal, please see information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on medicines that contain mercury and thimerosal in vaccines, and information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on thimerosal in vaccines.

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Recycling and Disposal

EPA encourages the recycling of mercury-containing products rather than disposing of them in regular household trash.  Recycling of mercury-containing products is one of the best ways to help prevent mercury releases to the environment by keeping these products out of landfills and incinerators. 

Many states and local agencies have developed collection/exchange programs for mercury-containing devices, such as thermometers, manometers, and thermostats, and recycling programs for fluorescent light bulbs. Some counties and cities also have household hazardous waste collection programs. For information about these programs, contact your local collection program to find out whether you can drop your old thermometers off any time or whether you should wait for the next collection effort in your area. You can also use earth911.com to find collection programs in your area -- just type in "thermometer" or "mercury" and your zip code to get a list of programs that accept mercury-containing thermometers.

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Spills and Cleanup

Mercury is used in a variety of consumer products such as thermometers and fluorescent bulbs. If you accidentally break a mercury-containing product during use, or improperly dispose of such products, they will release mercury vapors that are harmful to human and ecological health.

Spills - Information on what to do, and what never to do, if you spill mercury.

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