Deadly mercury is slowly
being eliminated in autos

By Richard Roch

Everybody knows that mercury is one of the most toxic and dangerous substances on the face of the Earth. This liquid metal can have noxious effects on people's health. For instance, when a living organism (such as a human being) absorbs inorganic mercury, it converts the latter into organic methylmercury which accumulates in the body and can lead to irreparable brain damage.

In addition, when mercury is rejected into the environment (by burning mercury-based components, for example), it can migrate into the atmosphere by way of evaporation, spread over significant distances and fall back into another habitat. Because of this migration, some populations who don't even reject mercury have been diagnosed with a high level of mercury inside their body.

Mercury and automobiles
Over the last decades, carmakers have used mercury to manufacture all kinds of auto parts: lighting switches, ABS and active suspension components. Model-year 1996 seems to have reached a peak in mercury use for new car manufacturing with more than 11 tons worldwide. From 1997 to 2002, companies took action to reduce mercury use by up to 75 percent.

A matter of money
Why did carmakers use mercury capsules and why do they still use certain non-recyclable plastics or toxic substances such as lead, cadmium and chrome to manufacture most of their vehicles? It's all a matter of cost price. Indeed, the competition in the auto industry is ultra fierce. The few dollars that a carmaker can save on a mass-production vehicle can make all the difference between market success and failure.

However, with times changing and education programs being developed, consumers have had to modify their behavior and their thinking to the point where they accept paying more to drive a recyclable vehicle. Simultaneously, carmakers opted for non-polluting alternative materials. So consider yourself warned: your next vehicle will be more environmentally-friendly but also more expensive.

The auto industry: queen of recycling
Believe it or not, experts have long considered the auto industry as the queen of recycling. Among the infinite number of products on today's market, the automobile is still the most recycled.

Vehicles manufactured in the new millennium include all kinds of materials: steel (55%), iron (11.6%), plastics (7.5%), aluminum (6.3%) and other (between 0.4 and 4.3%). The majority (75%) can be recycled.

Once the recycling is done, however, there remains some product residues that cannot be recycled: certain plastics, chrome, lead, arsenic, PCB, rubber, polystyrene, glass, paint, wood, fabric, paper, cardboard, fluids, lubricants and, obviously, mercury capsules used in switches. These residues have to be handled and disposed of without fear of harming people and the environment.

What to do with mercury?
Generally, about a million vehicles are recycled each year in Canada. Out of these vehicles, we must retrieve all switches (one switch uses an average of 850 mg of mercury). Since January 2003, carmakers can no longer use mercury to manufacture new vehicles. However, there are still millions of vehicles on the road with mercury capsules. In fact, the amount of mercury in those vehicles is estimated at up to 15 tons. With the new laws, the automobile and steel companies will now have to make sure that vehicle carcasses no longer contain mercury switches before sending them to recycling.

Quebec recycles!
In 2006, several organisations like Recyc-Québec, Clean Air Foundation, Environment Canada and the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association have set a goal of recuperating mercury during the vehicle recycling phase. Recyc-Québec alone recuperated 12,000 mercury capsules from vehicles that were in the hands of recycling companies and scrap merchants. Since a single switch contains enough mercury to contaminate, for a full year, the entire fish population of a 24-hectar lake, imagine the damage 10 kilos of mercury (from those 12,000 capsules) would cause to the various bodies of water and to the phreatic surface.

We are now at a turning point: we're making up for our past mistakes, on one hand, and we're working to implement new standards to improve the environment and not to repeat the same mistakes, on the other hand. The upcoming years will see the common sense prevail in the auto industry, thanks to green technologies, renewable fuels and recyclable materials.