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Use this Guide to learn about mercury, understand its environmental and health effects, safely manage products and wastes that contain it, and find out what Massachusetts and other states in the region are doing to reduce mercury exposure.
Mercury is a naturally occurring metallic element that is toxic to people and wildlife. It is found in many common items at home, school and work, including:
Mercury won't harm you if it stays inside an item. But when a product containing it is broken, thrown in the trash, or poured down the drain, mercury cycles through the environment, polluting air and water, and accumulating in fish.
You and your family can be exposed to mercury by breathing its fumes, eating contaminated fish, or touching spilled mercury. Follow these tips to protect yourself and the environment:
Mercury can be found at low levels almost everywhere, but the burning of coal and trash have greatly increased its levels in the environment.
The environmental impacts of mercury can be local, or carried across whole regions or entire continents by the wind.
In lakes, ponds, and the ocean, mercury can be transformed by natural processes into a more toxic form called methylmercury, which enters the food chain when small organisms absorb it.
Because mercury persists for so long, it takes many years for mercury levels in fish to drop significantly. It is important to be aware of and follow fish consumption advisories.
There are several different forms of mercury. Some are more dangerous than others, but all are toxic.
Depending on type and amount, exposure to mercury can damage a person's nervous system, brain, kidneys, liver, and immune system.
Children are most sensitive to mercury exposure, which can irreversibly damage their developing brains and nervous systems.
Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant need to be careful, too, since exposure can happen in the womb if they eat contaminated fish.
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that every year in the United States, 60,000 children exposed to mercury in the womb are born with neurological and other problems. These conditions can be permanent and lead to learning and other difficulties.
Learn how to safely manage products and wastes that contain mercury at home, school, and work.
See Key Actions below to use an interactive map or search by location to find nearby collection and recycling sites.
See Additional Resources below to learn more about safe management and disposal of fluorescent bulbs, proper cleanup of broken bulbs and elemental mercury spills, and more.
Signed into law in 2006, amended most recently in 2014, and embodied in M.G.L. Chapter 21H, Sections 6A-6N, the Mercury Management Act:
See the law and answers to common questions about its mercury product disposal ban provisions in Additional Resources below.
Consistent with Mercury Management Act requirements, MassDEP has implemented regulations that:
Even before the 2006 law took effect, MassDEP required power plants to reduce mercury emissions and municipal waste combustion facilities to separate mercury-containing items from the loads of trash sent to them for disposal.
The agency has also issued policies and guidance to help regulated businesses and facilities comply with these rules.
See Additional Resources below to learn more.
MassDEP reporting and certification requirements prevent mercury releases to the environment by ensuring proper end-of-life management of products that contain mercury.
Under the Mercury Management Act, the agency requires:
Under other statutory authority, MassDEP requires:
See Key Actions below to learn more.
MassDEP monitors contaminant levels in the edible tissues of freshwater fish and the Department of Public Health (DPH) issues advisories on eating fish taken from bodies of water across the state.
A fish consumption advisory:
Read advisories carefully. Even fish you buy from a store or market can contain mercury. Be sure to buy only from reputable sellers and ask ask about the origin of their catches.
See Key Actions and Additional Resources below for more information.
Massachusetts is not alone in sounding the alarm about mercury and taking concrete steps to reduce its presence in the environment.
At least 40 states, including all six in New England, have found fish with elevated levels of mercury in their lakes and ponds.
Massachusetts, other Northeastern states, and eastern Canadian provinces together have developed and are implementing a regional action plan to reduce mercury in products and the environment.
Specifically, these jurisdictions have:
As a result, there have been significant reductions in mercury emitted to the air and discharged to streams and lakes over the last couple of decades.
Massachusetts also was a founding member of the Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC), launched in 2001 to provide:
Massachusetts is one of 13 IMERC member states. The others are Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.