Steps to Reduce Mercury Sources and Risks

Regulatory Positions and Actions Regarding Mercury Sources and Risks

As has been discussed throughout this report, mercury compounds exhibit several characteristics that make them of great concern to MADEP, MADPH as well as other state environmental and public health agencies across the country. These include:

  1. significant potential toxicity, especially towards fetuses;

  2. persistence in the environment once released; and,

  3. the ability of organic mercury to bioconcentrate into living organisms, most notably fish.

As discussed earlier, these traits have led to significant adverse environmental impacts by mercury, especially on freshwater ecosystems.

Because of these characteristics, MADEP, as well as other local, state and national regulatory agencies, have initiated a number of efforts to reduce sources of mercury; to control mercury releases into the general environment; and to minimize risks attributable to mercury already in the environment. In order to reduce potential mercury impacts MADEP, EOEA and other State Agencies are taking the following specific actions in the areas of source reduction; emission controls and risk reduction:

Steps We Can All Take to Reduce Mercury Pollution

In addition to these regulatory actions there is much that individual citizens can do to reduce mercury pollution. As noted above much mercury enters the environment from the disposal of everyday household products. Consumers can significantly reduce such mercury pollution by buying mercury free batteries and recycling batteries, such as many button cells, that continue to contain mercury. For older household batteries, all button cell batteries and all imported batteries it is best to assume that they have mercury unless stated otherwise and to recycle them. Fluorescent and other high intensity light fixtures also contain mercury and should be recycled when possible. Information on how to recycle these products can be found in two MADEP consumer information publications entitled Mercury in Household Batteries and Mercury in Fluorescent Lights, which are available at no cost from the MADEP InfoLine. To request one or both, call (617) 338-2255 or, toll-free from outside of the 617 area, 1-800-462-0444.

Many other household products may also contain substantial amounts of mercury. In particular, older thermostats, thermometers, paints and some pesticides are likely to have significant mercury in them. These should be disposed of through your community's household hazardous waste collection program rather than into the trash.

There also some simple steps we can all take as individuals to minimize potential risks from mercury. Should products containing mercury (such as a thermometer) break it is important to carefully cleanup any spilled mercury (the silvery, liquid metal) and get the material and broken product out of the house. This should be done by scooping up the mercury droplets, which look like round spheres of silver liquid, gently into a container or vial using, for example, a cupped piece of paper as a scoop. The mercury should not be vacuumed! Vacuuming will break up the mercury into small particles and spew it into the air - even high efficiency vacuums cannot prevent the mercury from getting into the air. If you accidentally vacuum up mercury, immediately dispose of the vacuum bag.

If you like to fish (and lucky or skillful enough to actually catch some!) you can minimize your exposure to mercury by not eating fish from posted lakes and ponds in MA or other states. As noted earlier, if you are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant in the near future the MADPH recommends that you not eat freshwater fish from MA lakes, ponds and streams. The USFDA also recommends that pregnant women and those why may become pregnant limit eating swordfish and shark to no more than one meal a month, because of the possibility that they may contain elevated levels of mercury. In general exposures to mercury can be further reduced by not eating large predatory fish, such as big bass or pike, which are the one's most likely to have bioaccumulated mercury. So called put-and-take fishing for stocked trout is also a safe way to catch a good fish meal as the trout stocked by the MA Division of Fish and Game do not contain unsafe levels of mercury.


By taking some simple steps, we can all help to minimize mercury pollution and the risks to human health that such pollution causes. Together, state, national and individual efforts are needed to address this problem. Although many steps are being taken which will ultimately reduce the health risks posed by mercury, it is important to note that these efforts are unlikely to lead to immediate reductions of mercury concentrations in specific environments (e.g., lakes). In particular, concentrations of mercury in freshwater fish may not be reduced quickly. The persistence of mercury once released into the biosphere means that continued recirculation of mercury already emitted will occur for many years. This recirculation, combined with continuing inputs from natural sources, means that even successful efforts to control human-derived mercury releases may not result in detectable, short-term reductions in the concentrations of this metal in areas already affected. Discernible reductions may require many years to become evident and thus will require patience and perseverance.

Where to Next:

Questions or Comments?
C. Mark Smith MA DEP Office of Research and Standards email: