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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Cars

Air Date: Week of

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A recent report found that mercury from scrapped cars is one of the largest sources of mercury contamination in the United States. Some believe it's the responsibility of auto recyclers to remove mercury switches and other toxic car components. But, as Julie Halpert reports, a coalition of environmental groups are calling on the automakers to find substitutes for hazardous auto materials.


CURWOOD: As the U.S. government debates clamping down on auto fuel consumption, some are focusing on what they see as the next frontier: toxic emissions that are released when a car is junked. Julie Halpert, of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, takes a look at the hazardous materials inside cars and the latest drive to get rid of them.


HALPERT: It's a crisp, sunny day, and hundreds of junk cars fill the lot at Fox Auto Parts in Belleville, Michigan. Owner Joe Fox, Jr. takes in nearly 1,000 of these cars each year. Today he's crushing a steel car skeleton and flattening it like a pancake. But before that happens, Fox says he removes everything that could cause problems down the line.

FOX: Well, there's a lot of hazardous waste. You've got gasoline, you've got oil, you've got antifreeze, you've got freon, and everything's got to be taken care of the proper way.

HALPERT: Most auto recyclers are encouraged to drain all fluids from the car, like gasoline, coolant, and used oil, all of which can be recycled. Some state and local laws also require that they remove the car's lead battery for recycling, as well. Joe Fox says, unlike some other auto recyclers, he's diligent about following these procedures. He also makes sure to remove other car components that he recently found out are harmful to the environment.

GRIFFITH: Inside the car here, you can see the nice dashboard we have here. This is typically made with a PVC vinyl skin, and it is what contains the sort of chlorine-based plastic.

HALPERT: That's Charles Griffith, with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Griffith says that car parts, such as PVC plastics, and automotive switches for hoods and car lights, contain toxic substances hazardous to the environment. Polyvinyl chlorides, or PVC plastics, release dioxin when heated or burned. Dioxin is a known carcinogen that can cause health problems to adults and children. The car switches and high intensity headlamps contain mercury, which when incinerated, can contaminate water, prompting fish consumption advisories, because of potential neurological damage.

If these materials aren't removed, they stay with the steel after the car is crushed and shredded. Then they pollute the air when the steel is burned in a furnace to make new steel. A recent Ecology Center report found that mercury from scrap cars is one of the nation's largest sources of airborne mercury contamination. Some environmentalists place the blame for this toxic exposure squarely on the car companies.

In July, a coalition of environmental groups called the Clean Car Campaign asked automakers to remove mercury from cars in for service, repair, or recall. The Campaign called on car dealers to replace mercury switches for free. Gregory Dana is Vice President for Environmental Affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He argues that auto recyclers are better equipped to deal with the problem.

DANA: We don't think it's our business to pay for or set up take back programs on these switches, because there's a business out there already set up to be able to do that properly.

HALPERT: But some say junkyard operators have neither the incentive nor the money to undertake such a task. Dean Menke is with Environmental Defense's Pollution Prevention Alliance. He says carmakers should take responsibility from the start and curb their use of toxic materials.

MENKE: Substitutes are available for many of the toxics used in automobiles, including mercury. Automakers must consider the impacts their design decisions have throughout the product life cycle, including the disposal of the automobile. And I think automakers can definitely do more to address this issue of toxics in automobiles.

HALPERT: Carmakers say they've made great strides in taking toxic materials out of cars. But they say that developing environmentally friendly substitutes isn't easy, and they need to ensure that new products don't introduce new problems. Kevin Webber is Manager of Corporate Planning for Toyota Technical Center, USA in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He says Toyota's confronting the problem by trying to find a substitute for mercury in its high intensity discharge headlamps.

WEBBER: The HID headlamps are much, much brighter than standard headlamps. And so the safety improvement for our drivers and our customers is quite a bit higher. And so we have to really consider that tradeoff: is the safety improvement much better than what could be the potential environmental impact of having that mercury vapor in that headlamp?

HALPERT: So for now, Toyota will continue to use mercury in its headlamps. But other car companies are trying to limit the use of toxic materials in different areas. Daimler/Chrysler, for example, has found a way to remove lead from its painting process. Environmental Defense's Dean Menke is encouraged by that progress, but he says that more needs to be done.

MENKE: If pollution prevention or design for recycling or design for environment generally isn't implemented to the fullest extent possible, the issue of toxics or many of the environmental issues that automobiles create on our society will continue to persist.

HALPERT: Menke says he and other environmentalists will continue prodding carmakers, who are struggling to pay attention to what comes out of the car in the form of tailpipe emissions, to also pay attention to the toxics inside the cars they sell. For Living On Earth, I'm Julie Halpert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.




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