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back to article Global mercury ban to hit electronics, plastics, power prices

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has signed off on the Minamata Convention, a new global agreement that will ban mercury from most uses by 2020. UNEP's Mercury: Time to Act book says the substance “damages the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, immune system, eyes, gums and skin” and can result in “ …

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Just like lead

There will be bans on unique chips that uses a minute quantity of mercury, safely bound up in a crystal lattice (like HgCdTe infrared diodes).

But power stations dumping tons of the stuff into the air or 3rd world plants putting it in the ocean will be exempt

Like when we had to redesign our product because a single vital timing chip wasn't available in ROHS. It probably didn't even have any lead in it but was made before ROHS and the maker wouldn't pay to certify it.

Of course the 2kg lead-acid battery that powered it was fine!

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Devil

Re: Just like lead

While I agree with you on most counts I am going to nitpick a few of your points:

0. First of all - I agree with you on the power stations. The amount of environmental leeway coal continues to get is ridiculous.

1. Lead acid batteries are recycled in 99%+ of the cases nowdays and do not require any special tech to recycle. Very few (end up going into landfill in developed countries.

2. The "safely bound in a crystal lattice" is actually the biggest problem. It cannot be recycled and it stops being "safely bound in the crystal lattice" after a couple of years time in a landfill. Give or take a couple of years for it to be leaked into underground water and from there on we know the story. By the way - if they ban HgCdTe this way, well... that deserves an applause. How would you like your groundwater? With Hg? With Cd? Or with Te? Cd is even worse than good old Pb and some of the effects are on par with Mercury. Te is not something I would like with my morning cereal either.

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Happy

Re: Just like lead

I only drink rainwater naturally, so no commie heavy metals in the groundwater to sap and impurify all of my precious bodily fluids.

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Unhappy

Re: Just like lead

"I only drink rainwater naturally, so no commie heavy metals in the groundwater to sap and impurify all of my precious bodily fluids."

Something tells me this strategy may end badly.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just like lead

A very strange love...

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404
Bronze badge

Re: Just like lead

Ah, so you get your lead without the middleman -> the middleman being the ground, which acts like a filter to underground water supplies -> which I filter even further before it comes out of the tap.

hmm.

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Meh

If I were Japanese

I'd worry more able radiation than a little mercury in my tuna.

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Re: If I were Japanese

@ LarsG

I wouldn't.

The amount of deadly radiation from Japan has been blown out of all proportion by the media; actual levels are magnitudes below safe levels for the general public. There are plenty article here on El Reg if you're interested. (Start here, and go through the related articles: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/12/fukushima_ffs/)

Whereas mercury in Tuna (and other higher food chain fish) is very definitely higher than recommended, and a very real threat to the general public.

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"Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters..."

It's many years since I saw a mercury column blood pressure meter in use. Are they still used much, since the battery powered, electronic pumped-cuff ones are so cheap nowadays? (I paid £15 online for mine and it seems to work just fine.)

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Re: "Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters..."

I'm not sure, but I know that when my father's wife was doing her first-aid for the ambulance service, she was sent home with one to practice with. This may have just been because the fancy new one was left in the ambulance.

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Re: "Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters..."

Here in France, mercury sphygmomanometers (to give them their proper name) are no longer available to buy new, but there is, according to the doctors I have spoken to about this, still the possibility of buying one on the second-hand market, i.e. from another doctor.

Curiously, my médécin traitant ("GP") uses an electronic one, while the cardiologist I went to see as a result of persistent slightly high BP uses a mercury meter. Another specialist (long story) used a manually pumped needle-gauge meter.

The choice of which to use seems to be personal, but I've also read that the mercury-column meters give more accurate results, while the electronic ones are easier to use.

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Re: "Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters..."

My diabetic nurse has recently started using a fully automatic BP meter, when I asked her why she replied to the effect that it's to stop her forearm becoming like Popeye's. When you're taking dozens of readings per day, the manually pumped ones get a bit wearisome.

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FAIL

Re: "Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters..."

Surely collecting up and destroying mercury thermometers would be far more hazardous than leaving the mercury exactly where it is - sealed in glass.

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WTF?

Re: "Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters..."

Are you serious? How long do you think the mercury in a glass thermometer is going to stay sealed in glass once it's buried with tons of other waste and driven over by heavy equipment?

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No problem.

We'll end up buying our mercury-filled flourecent lamps from third-world countries where the bans will be delayed by decades.

No wait, that's what we're already doing. No problem then!

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Facepalm

Errata

Medical devices will not have to be replaced, you simply won't be able to buy new ones that use mercury.

Power plants will be required to install new filters/scrubbers.

You won't be able to buy mercury-filled fluorescents manufactured in third-world countries because there will be import/export bans on such products.

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Re: Errata

" mercury-filled fluorescents"

Not really a very objective way to describe a tube that (these days) contains generally a few milligrams of mercury. A trace would be more appropriate in common parlance.

That said I agree that phasing mercury out should be considered a good thing but AFAIK the likelihood that such efficient lighting can be produced without mercury seems very low (see http://www.osram.com/osram_com/sustainability/sustainable-products/sustainability-criteria/key-performance-indicators/mercury/why-mercury/index.jsp)

But there is always LEDs

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Pint

Re: Errata

Bring back incandescent (sp?) lights then.

No Mercury, the heat output would help in ultra-insulated homes.

Anecdotal evidence - but my bathroom is far colder first thing in the morning with 3x60w equivalent CCF bulbs rather than the 180w of incandescents taking the chilll off the room.

Beer as its the closest to a lightbulb shape...

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Re: Errata

-Power plants will be required to install new filters/scrubbers.

Nope. Existing plants will be exempt and only new plants not yet in construction (or approved) will have new filtering requirements. At least that has been how it's always been done. Power companies own enough politicians to keep from having to refit older plants.

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Boffin

Fluorescents

I wasn't aware that there was any kind of fluorescent bulb that didn't use mercury. They all need a UV emitter and there aren't many choices. Still, in a few years high power LEDs will be cheap enough to take over most lighting applications. Let's just hope the environmental fascists don't discover they're made of toxic elements and the process involves toxic gases.

Honestly, I'm getting tired of this wholesale banning of elements on the grounds of exaggerated fear.

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Unhappy

Re: Fluorescents

"I wasn't aware that there was any kind of fluorescent bulb that didn't use mercury. They all need a UV emitter and there aren't many choices."

I joked regarding wind power this would be much greater threat to the environment (the massively increased use of them with what seems like poor disposal arrangements) than any number of gas powered generating stations.

Looks like I was right.

As chemist pointed out the individual quantity is in the mg range but the numbers are in use are going to be in the billions, (EU population c500m, 4-8 lamps a dwelling).

I think florescents without Mercury are stuffed.

Kerching go the lamp mfgs as they stiff the people for yet another new lamp tech.

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Coat

Re: Fluorescents

Sooner or later someone will invent a really safe bulb, perhaps a glass envelope with nothing in it except maybe a bit of wire. It'll probably be cheap, too.

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Re: Fluorescents

"Sooner or later someone will invent a really safe bulb"

In the link to Osram they had researched alternatives to mercury like xenon for generating UV in fluorescents but the energy efficiency was much lower than mercury, although doubtless much better than hot wires.

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Boffin

Re: Fluorescents

"In the link to Osram they had researched alternatives to mercury like xenon for generating UV in fluorescents but the energy efficiency was much lower than mercury, although doubtless much better than hot wires."

There are other low melting point metals and at least one that melts at near room temperature.

Is it just price that stops them being used or are they as unhealthy? I'm thinking of things like Indium and Indium/Gallium alloys.

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Re: Fluorescents

AFAIK it's the UV spectrum emitted by the ionized mercury vapour, I presume also that it needs to be readily vapourized -it's heat of vapourization is ~59 vs ~230 kJ/mol for Indium and the boiling point is much lower too

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Urh

Re: Fluorescents

The only other UV emitter I know of that's used commercially is deuterium, and AFAIK deuterium arc lamps are almost exclusively used in scientific equipment. One thing that's guaranteed to warrant a bollocking from a lab manager is some fool leaving a UV spectrometer switched on overnight.

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Anonymous Coward

off to the dentist tomorrow for more mercury...

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Unlikely I'm afraid - most dentists are encouraged to go for the non-mercury , white versions these days.

The fact they're twice the price and have twice the margin of the mercury ones has nothing to do with it, of course.

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Anonymous Coward

Nope, I get the metal fillings myself, much harder wearing, I paid for white fillings for ages, each time they broke if they were on a biting surface, amalgam is way tougher, I'd be happy to replace all my metal fillings with white ones as soon as they get a tech that is tough enough to last on a biting surface! (and I don't mind paying for it)

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Black Helicopters

The Convention will impact Reg readers in many ways. Some fluorescent lamps rely on the element, as do light switches.

That's funny...I never saw any questions about our love of lamps and light switches in the user survey. Did I miss out a section? Or does El Reg have greater inteligence collection methods we're not aware of - ie black helicopters?

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Boffin

Agreed..

I know its Monday AM but what aspect of light switches use mercury????

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Linux

It's the black helicopters one

It's the black helicopters one.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Agreed..

"I know its Monday AM but what aspect of light switches use mercury????"

Interesting question. Certainly mercury-wetted contacts were used in some applications. My doorbell is a chime that doesn't do a simple ding-dong - but keeps repeating about twice a second. This is achieved by an internal interrupter using mercury in a mechanically linked tube as the switch.

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WTF?

Re: Agreed..

I was thinking that too, I recently replaced our kitchen light switch (the white £1.something kind from B&Q) and took it apart in the process. It appears to be nothing more than two screws to hold the wires coming from the wall connected to copper (I assume) strips, one strip is on a spring connected to the plastic switch and connects with the other side when closed. There appeared to be a blob of grey metal on each of the strips where they'd contact - so maybe this is a mercury alloy?

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Windows

As a young 'un

I used to play for hours with metallic mercury i had aquired from thermometers...

Had it rolling around my hands and there was even a kids toy called "Mercury Maze" IMMSMR...

In retrospect it probably explains a lot looking back.....

Ahh, happy memories...

Happy 75th easter....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: As a young 'un

In the 2nd Form our physics teacher produced a beaker of mercury to demonstrate a liquid metal that was deceptively heavy and had an upward domed meniscus. He also demonstrated air pressure supporting a column from an open trough. A few stray globules were enthusiastically pursued round the bench top until they could be captured and returned to the bottle. Glass blowing was a technique we learned about the same time. Not sure what we put in our capillary tube thermometers before calibrating them with boiling water and melting ice.

Doing a survey of the house: most lights are now CFL or fluorescent tubes; the outside max/min thermometer is mercury; the doorbell has a mercury switch to make the actuator oscillate.

The lights are easy to dispose of in the reserved section at the Council recycling plant. Doubt if they have special handling for other mercury products - so presumably they end up trashed in the plastics recycling.

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Thumb Up

Re: As a young 'un

> there was even a kids toy called "Mercury Maze"

I still have one. Looks just like this:

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_BTfM-hqUwDw/R2rc9Fr73aI/AAAAAAAAAHs/QiNSxMYrqeA/s400/mercury-maze-2.jpg

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Re: As a young 'un

Same here. It was an old school and we were the umpty-somethingth generation of kids to do this.

That's why we had to do without the phys. and chem. labs altogether for some time. Some jobsworth ran a gas analyzer on the air in the labs and the whole shebang got shut down. Pulling up the floorboards resulted in the retrieval of 30-odd pounds of mercury that had accumulated beneath them over the years.

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Expect a "mercury trading certificate" scam to spring up any minute now

Yeah, let's have some progress in this bitch.

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Anonymous Coward

The story of mercury

Wikipedia has a good page on the history and uses of mercury. Liquid mirrors for astronomical telescopes was an unexpected use.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_(element)

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but still fine to put it in our teeth yes?

well depending on which country you live in anyway. some countries dont give a shit about their slaves' health including all powerful UK.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: but still fine to put it in our teeth yes?

Exactly.

It is not exactly recent news that mercury is deadly.

It may be relatively inert in the amalgam in our teeth, but it still has to be handled by the professionals. I remember a dental nurse telling me that a doc had told her that only exposure to the air would heal up a wound on her foot. She said it was tough to get the doc to understand that she worked with mercury: an open sore and open shoes was an absolute no-way.

Mercury is also not exactly cheap. Could it be that the much greater cost of resin fillings is partly because the UK NHS didn't subsidize them?

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Silver badge

Re: but still fine to put it in our teeth yes?

IIRC the NHS pay for resin on visible teeth (i.e. the front ones) but recommend the amalgam on molers...

Amalgam lasts longer, this resin stuff just breaks if you try to bite on it!

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PT

Re: but still fine to put it in our teeth yes?

"Mercury is also not exactly cheap"

The current price is $1850 per flask - a standard flask contains 76 pounds so that works out to $24 a pound (US dollars). A pound is about the volume of a golf ball and that will make a LOT of fillings. If you don't want to buy a whole flask, you can buy it by the pound from prospecting and mining suppliers in the US for not a lot more than $24. It costs at least ten times more from reagent chemical suppliers. I imagine that five years after the ban the black market price will be more costly than silver, so a flask today could be a good retirement investment.

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Thiomersal?

Does this just apply to straight mercury or to compounds as well?

There's enough scare stories about Thiomersal from anti-vaxxers making it difficult to get vaccines with the appropriate preservative for hot countries as it is.

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Happy

But Mercury is so good for you, and the environment.

It cures syphilis, lights the world, is fun to play with...

Thermometers, etc..

It comes from the ground, and goes back into the ground - so where is the problem.

What we need is MORE mercury in the environment.

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Happy

Re: But Mercury is so good for you, and the environment.

Sponsored by the International Mercury Mining Association

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So it will cost more

And all we get for that is a longer healthier life.

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Boffin

CMOS "Button cells"?

Button / Coin cells originally were ONLY Mercury types in 1930 when the clever package was invented by Mr Compton I think. Still available up to maybe the 1970s? The Silver types invented during WWII but rather expensive of course.

But Zinc Air, Alkaline, Silver Oxide and Lithium Button & Coin cells have been mercury free for over 20 years. Memory chips have been using Lithium or NiCd (then NiMH) type cells for about 30 years

I had thought Zinc Carbon/Zinc Chloride / Alkaline manganese batteries had always been mercury free (they are now), but apparently some mercury was used to help the Zinc Chloride material or something, which actually seems to be involved in all 3 mentioned Cell types.

LEDs can't come close to CFL for colour rendition (the wavelength is too long) a new LED material is needed. They also can't come close to power level of the higher power high pressure mercury vapour lamps.

Mercury based thermometers and blood pressure are long obsolete. The main issue is lighting.

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Re: CMOS "Button cells"?

Mage say's "Mercury based thermometers and blood pressure are long obsolete."

Not at two GP's I visit or the ward of a Hospital on another visit for blood pressure monitoring. When I asked "why" I was told that it's a cheap, reliable, accurate instrument that does not need power, calibration or significant maintenance.

If you have tried one of the "cheap" home blood pressure monitors you will find it difficult to get 3/4 successive readings even approaching the same numbers.

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