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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5137

Changing Patterns in the Use, Recycling, and Material Substitution of Mercury in the United States

By David R. Wilburn

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Abstract

Environmental concerns have led to numerous regulations that have dramatically decreased the reported production and use of mercury in the United States since the 1980s. Government legislation and subsequent industry actions have led to increased collection of mercury-containing materials and the recovery of mercury through recycling. Mercury emissions have been reduced and effective alternatives to mercury products have been developed for many applications. This study updates and quantifies the changes in demand, supply, use, and material flow for mercury in various sectors in the United States that have taken place since 1996.

Nearly all primary mercury produced in the United States is derived as a byproduct of processing of gold and silver ore in Nevada. Since 2001, annual production of mercury from gold and silver mining in Nevada has decreased by 22 percent overall because ore from greater depths containing low grade mercury is recovered, and mercury emissions from this source have decreased by 95 percent as a result of increased regulation and improved collection and suppression technology.

The distribution of consumption of mercury in the United States has changed as a result of regulation (elimination of large-scale mercury use in the paint and battery sectors), reduction by consumers (decommissioning of mercury-cell chloralkali manufacturing capacity), and technological advances (improvements in dental, lighting, and wiring sectors).

Mercury use in the chloralkali sector, the leading end-use sector in the United States in 1996, has declined by 98 percent from 136 metric tons (t) in 1996 to about 0.3 t in 2010 because of increased processing and recycling efficiencies and plant closures or conversion to other technologies. As plants were closed, mercury recovered from the infrastructure of decommissioned plants has been exported, making the United States a net exporter of mercury, even though no mercury has been produced as the primary product from mines in the United States since 1992.

In 1996, the three leading end-use sectors for mercury in the United States were chloralkali manufacturing (accounting for 38 percent of consumption), electrical and electronic instrumentation (13 percent of consumption), and instruments and measuring devices (11 percent of consumption). In 2010, the three leading end-use sectors were dental amalgam (accounting for between 35 and 57 percent of consumption), electrical and electronic instrumentation (29 percent of consumption), and batteries (8 percent of consumption). Mercury use in lighting is increasing because incandescent lights are being phased out in favor of mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs, but the demand for mercury per unit produced is small.

Dental amalgam constituted the largest amount of mercury in use in the United States. One study reported about 290 t of mercury in dental amalgam was estimated to be contained in human mouths, an estimated 30 t of mercury amalgam was treated as waste, 28.5 t of mercury amalgam was released to the environment, 6 t of amalgam was recycled, and 3.5 t was treated and stored in landfills in 2009.

Mercury contained in products recovered by State, municipal, or industry collection activities is recycled, but the estimated overall recycling rate is less than 10 percent. Increasingly, the U.S. mercury recycling industry has been processing a significant amount of mercury-containing material derived from foreign gold mining operations or decommissioned mercury-cell chloralkali plants.

Regulation of mercury export and storage is expected to result in surplus mercury inventories in the United States. The Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 limits elemental mercury exports for unregulated uses such as artisanal gold mining after January 1, 2013, and requires development of adequate long-term storage facilities in the United States for elemental mercury. During the past 4 years, producers and recyclers of elemental mercury have been exporting large quantities of mercury in anticipation of this regulation, but the U.S. inventory of mercury in 2010 was estimated to have exceeded 7,000 t from Government stockpiles and industry stocks. Costs attributed to long-term storage may affect the competitiveness of mercury recycling.

First posted August 6, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, National Minerals Information Center
U.S. Geological Survey
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20192
Telephone: (703) 648–4961
Internet: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/

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Suggested citation:

Wilburn, D.R., 2013, Changing patterns in the use, recycling, and material substitution of mercury in the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5137, 32 p., http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2013/5137/.



Contents

Acknowledgments

Abstract

Introduction

Historical Use, Production, and Legislation of Mercury

Primary Production and Processes

Secondary Sources of Mercury

Uses of Mercury

Effect of the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008 on the U.S. Mercury Industry

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited


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