Studies find automobiles are a major source of mercury pollution. U.S. automakers have failed to make good on promises to end the use of harmful mercury in cars and trucks, show two new studies released by leading environmental organizations. Environmental groups say mercury used in electrical switches and lighting ends up polluting lakes and contaminating fish when cars and trucks are scrapped, compressed and recycled in steel mills. "Cars on the road today contain 191 tons of mercury," said Alexandra McPherson, clean production coordinator at Great Lakes United, an international coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River ecosystem and one of the groups that released the reports. "Allowing mercury to be used in these cars is as irresponsible as unleashing faulty Firestone tires on unsuspecting drivers." Mercury is highly toxic and can cause serious brain and nerve damage, especially in children. Effects of mercury poisoning range from decreased attention span and memory to mental retardation, cerebral palsy and blindness. Automobiles are one of the nation's largest sources of toxic mercury emissions - automotive electrical switches alone account for 11 percent of mercury emissions today. Despite practical, inexpensive alternatives and industry commitments to phase out its use, mercury continues to be widely used in new automobiles, the groups charge. The organizations called on U.S. automakers to immediately eliminate the use of mercury in autos. In 1995, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. reached a voluntary agreement with the state of Michigan in 1995 to phase out all use of mercury in cars and trucks. At the time, the automakers left the public with the impression that the phase out would take a few years at the most, environmentalists said. But in 2000, the companies sold vehicles that contained 6.6 million to 9.2 million mercury switches, environmental groups claim. While some automakers have reduced the use of mercury in convenience lighting switches in cars, they still are using them in hundreds of thousands of new cars. At the same time, automakers have significantly increased the use of mercury switches in anti-lock brake systems and have introduced new uses for mercury in cars, including mercury vapor headlamps, the reports said. Not surprisingly, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) disputes claims that cars and light trucks represent a significant source of mercury emissions. And automakers adamantly opposes legislation requiring removal of switches, and the industry remains divided over how to handle mercury switches in existing vehicles. Automakers shouldn't have to remove switches from existing vehicles, said Greg Dana, vice president of environmental affairs for the AAM. "Why inconvenience the consumer when [switches] are causing no damage to the environment?" Auto dismantlers should strip out the devices when they remove engine oil and transmission fluid before turning scrap cars over to recyclers, Dana said. But Bill Steinkuller, executive vice president of the Auto Recyclers Association, said "the cost would be staggering" if the industry had to dispose of highly toxic mercury. "They've put these switches in," McPherson said of the automakers. "They should be responsible for getting them out." The Automotive Recyclers of Michigan did begin a voluntary program in September called "Pull the Switch, Clean the Fish." According to executive director Barbara Utter, salvage yards have removed a whopping 1,000 switches so far. One of the reports - "Toxics in Vehicles: Mercury," a collaboration of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Great Lakes United, and the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies - documents how dangerous levels of mercury are released into the environment once cars leave the road and enter vehicle disposal and recycling processes. About 12 million cars and trucks are scrapped each year. Scrap vehicles melted in electric arc furnaces release an estimated 15.6 metric tons of mercury each year, which is more than all manufacturing sources combined. Almost all of it from mercury light or brake switches, according to the reports. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 144 million metric tons of man-made mercury pollution is released each year in the United States overall. Automobiles are likely the single largest source of mercury contaminated scrap, the groups found. The report finds that EAFs are not only the largest manufacturing source of mercury air emissions in the U.S., but the fourth largest overall - behind only coal fired power plants and municipal waste incinerators. "Our report clearly documents how the unnecessary use of mercury in automobiles is the primary culprit in contaminating the scrap steel recycling and recovery system," said Charles Griffith, auto project director at the Ecology Center, a regional grassroots environmental group. "These new findings show that the auto industry is one of the nation's largest sources of mercury pollution." According to the second report - "Toxic by Design," released by the nonprofit Environmental Defense - auto manufacturers have continued to use mercury in product design and purchasing decisions despite known concerns and available alternatives. The report also finds that mercury is released by the manufacturers of automotive switches. "Our studies show automakers are still using mercury, despite practical, low cost alternatives," said Dean Menke, Environmental Defense engineer. "The auto industry needs to immediately eliminate mercury use to protect public health and the environment." About 175 to 200 metric tons of mercury are in vehicles on the road today, primarily in mercury switches in hood and trunk lighting and anti-lock braking systems, "Toxic by Design" shows. One auto mercury switch contains nearly one gram of mercury, equivalent to the amount of mercury found in household fever thermometers, which are now being banned by many city and state governments due to increasing concern about the health risks resulting from the disposal of mercury containing products. As little as 1/70th of a teaspoon in a 25-acre lake can make fish unsafe to eat. Daimler-Chrysler and Ford significantly have increased the use of mercury brake switches since 1995, producing as many as 4.8 million model year 2000 vehicles with the switches. General Motors does not use mercury brake switches. In model year 1996, an estimated 1.7 million U.S.-made cars and trucks used mercury brake switches, the reports said. Mercury in hood and convenience light switches can be replaced by an ordinary ball bearing, among other options. Mercury in brake switches can be replaced by an integrated electronic switch. The difference in cost per vehicle is "pennies," environmentalists said. European and Japanese automakers phased out all use of mercury in cars and trucks in the early 1990s in response to a ban Sweden imposed on the sale of vehicles containing mercury. Eight Ford and 10 General Motors models in model year 2000 still used mercury lighting switches - an estimated 2.8 million to 4.6 million vehicles, the reports said, including the Ford Explorer, one of the most popular sport utility vehicles on the road. The Explorer also uses mercury brake switches. Ford produced more than 450,000 Explorers last year, according to Automotive News. The findings of both reports support an action plan developed by the national Clean Car Campaign for eliminating mercury hazards caused by automobiles. The action plan calls on U.S. automakers to immediately eliminate the use of mercury switches in new cars and trucks, label component parts and vehicles that contain mercury, and take responsibility for the removal and safe collection of mercury switches in the existing fleet of vehicles currently on the road. "Just as we expect automakers to take responsibility - and even recall - vehicles that pose safety or environmental hazards while on the road, they also need to address the serious hazards once their products are sent to the scrap heap," said McPherson.