Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable
Promoting Pollution Prevention Through Information Exchange

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Auto Salvage-Great Lakes Region: Reasons for Change
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Reasons for Change
Barriers to Change
Environmental Regulations
P2 Opportunities
Key Contacts
Where to go for P2 Help
Complete List of Links

Essential Links:

Compliance Manual for Indiana's Vehicle Maintenance Shops
This manual outlines compliance requirements and provides waste prevention and minimization strategi...

Environmental Compliance and Pollution Prevention Guide for Automobile Recyclers
This guide is designed to inform automobile recyclers about registrations, permits and regulations p...

National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program
EPA announced a national program August 11, 2006 that will help cut mercury air emissions by up to 7...

The auto salvage industry is fast becoming a highly regulated industry in the United States by government environmental agencies, i.e. U.S. EPA, state environmental regulatory agencies, county government, and municipal government. By taking preventive actions, a salvage yard can minimize the potential for regulatory enforcement and increase positive public perception of the reuse and recycling role that an auto salvage yard plays.

In addition, most pollution prevention activities are low-cost, low-risk activities that have extensive benefits, including cost savings. Environmental clean-up and regulatory enforcement can be quite costly. Good management and waste minimization practices can minimize or eliminate the potential for substantial costs associated with regulatory fines and hazardous materials cleanup. See the ?Environmental Regulations? section of this Topic Hub for more information on regulations that commonly apply to salvage operations.

By implementing waste minimization and pollution prevention activities, a salvage yard can help reduce the potential harm to the community and its residents (including the facility?s own employees). This is particularly important in areas where residents draw their drinking water from local groundwater wells. Even if the salvage yard is not located near residents or well heads, the contaminants can move over time and eventually reach groundwater and surface waters (lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, etc.). Thus, pollution prevention at salvage yards helps to protect the environmental health and safety of communities, with the added benefit of reducing or eliminating liability concerns for the operators of the salvage facilities.

Releases of hazardous materials into the environment are a common risk at auto salvage yards. The primary hazardous materials are petroleum-based products including oils, lubricants, fuel, antifreeze (ethylene glycol & propylene glycol), brake fluid, and steering fluid. Other hazardous materials commonly handled at salvage facilities include freon or other refrigerants, which are air contaminants; mercury from switches; lead from lead/acid batteries and wheel weights, and asbestos from brakes.

The following is a list of some of the hazardous materials commonly handled at salvage facilities. This list is not meant to be comprehensive; for more information on hazardous materials common to the auto salvage industry, consult the list of links associated with this Topic Hub.

Air Bags
See "Sodium Azide Air Bags" below.

Antifreeze is comprised primarily of water and ethylene glycol or propylene glycol (a less environmentally hazardous alternative chemical). The glycol increases the surface tension of water or other fluids and retards freezing. Ethylene glycol is a toxic substance that contaminates water and the soil. It is poisonous to humans and pets, and can cause coma or death. Pets are attracted to puddles of sweet-tasting antifreeze. This, and the fact that many salvage yards traditionally have pet or guard dogs at the facility, provide additional motivation to manage antifreeze properly. Antifreeze may also become contaminated during use with gasoline, oils, and metals, such as lead, cadmium or mercury.

Asbestos may be found in some automobile brake shoes and clutches. Asbestos consists of microscopic fibers that may become airborne and inhaled into the lungs, causing a variety of significant health problems. Potential health problems caused by asbestos inhalation include asbestosis, mesothelioma (a cancer of the lung lining and chest cavity whose only known cause is asbestos exposure), and lung cancer.

Auto ?Fluff?/Auto Shredder Residue (ASR)
Scrap metal pieces are magnetically removed from shredded auto body material. The shredded material remaining after ferrous metal removal is referred to as auto ?fluff? or auto shredder residue (ASR). Fluff may contain a complex cocktail of substances such as cadmium, chromium, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), textiles, rubber, glass, foam, plastics, various materials treated with brominated flame retardants, various fluids (if these were not completely drained from the vehicle prior to shredding), even dirt. The exact composition of fluff will vary based upon the vehicle in question, as well as the dismantling and recovery procedures of the salvage facility where the vehicle was shredded. If not properly stored and disposed off, toxic substances within the fluff may leach into surrounding soil and groundwater. Depending upon its composition, fluff may also be flammable.

Brake Fluid
Brake fluid is a flammable product, which contains 80-85% solvent in the form of glycols (methyl, ethyl, and butyl ethers of ethylene glycol). Break fluid is poisonous, and if ingested may cause central nervous system depression and kidney failure. Used brake fluid contains lead and other heavy metals, which present an environmental danger if disposed of improperly.

See ?Refrigerants? below.

Fuel and Fuel Filters
Fuel is obviously flammable, and can contaminate soil and groundwater if not stored and disposed of correctly.

Lead-Acid Batteries (Lead and Sulfuric Acid)
Lead-acid batteries contain both lead and acid (sulfuric acid). Each of these materials is hazardous. Lead is a persistent bioaccumulative toxic substance (PBT), which is a health hazard to humans and other animals. PBTs either degrade very slowly in the environment or not at all, and once they have entered an organism, they build up in tissue over time. PBTs may move up food chains, meaning they will contaminate the bodies of organisms that eat other organisms that are themselves contaminated. Lead may cause a range of health effects, from behavioral problems and learning disabilities, to seizures and death. The effects of lead on the adult body include problems with reproduction, digestion, and with memory and concentration; high blood pressure, nerve disorders; and muscle and joint pain.

The electrolyte in spent lead-acid batteries may contain up to 70 times the amount of lead found in the electrolyte of new batteries. Therefore, exposure to electrolyte from spent lead-acid batteries presents a greater hazard to health and the environment. If spent lead-acid batteries are improperly stored at a salvage yard they may release lead and lead-contaminated sulfuric acid into the environment. This can pollute drinking water sources such as lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater.

The electrolyte (battery acid) in a typical lead-acid battery contains approximately 60% water and 40% sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid is a corrosive material that can cause harm to the body upon physical contact or through the inhalation of vapors or mists. When sulfuric acid comes in contact with flesh, it burns the skin, leaving a black charred carbon residue in place of living tissue.

Sulfuric acid is also a hazard due to reactivity. Sulfuric acid can react with other chemicals, generating enough heat to ignite ordinary combustible materials. Many types of metals are easily dissolved by sulfuric acid, resulting in a release of hydrogen, which is extremely flammable. In addition to reactivity, sulfuric acid can also feed an existing fire by releasing oxygen, which acts as a fuel to fire.

Lead Wheel Weights
Wheel weights made of lead are clipped onto wheel rims to ensure even balancing of wheels. Wheel weights made of alternative substances, such as steel, zinc, iron or tin are available, and lead wheel weights are being phased out in the European Union and in certain parts of the United States (for example, Ann Arbor, Michigan is phasing out lead weights on city vehicles, and the state of Minnesota is replacing lead wheel weights with alternatives on state vehicles). However, the majority of incoming vehicles to salvage yards will include lead wheel weights. See ?Lead-Acid Batteries? for information on the environmental and health hazards associated with lead.

Mercury Switches
Like lead, mercury is a PBT, meaning that it persists in the environment, accumulates in living tissue, and may be passed up food chains (this is the reason for mercury fish advisories that are issued for the Great Lakes and other bodies of water in the Great Lakes region). Elemental mercury vaporizes when heated and the vapors are highly toxic. Also, when mercury is released into the environment, it may be converted to methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury, by microorganisms. Mercury poisoning can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver, and in extreme cases can cause death.

Many auto manufacturers are committed to eliminating mercury switches from new vehicles. However, according to the U.S. EPA Mercury Switch and Auto Recycling Program, more than 215 million mercury switches remain in vehicles on the road as of 2003. Unless a salvage facility has a program in place to remove the mercury switches from the vehicles prior to crushing and recycling, the mercury can be released into the environment. Mercury switches that are removed must be safely stored and transported to a recycling facility.

Oil and Oil Filters
Used oil can contaminate soil and water if leaked or improperly stored or disposed of. It is considered hazardous waste if it has been mixed with or contaminated by solvents or other hazardous vehicle fluids, such as antifreeze, solvents or cleaners.

Power Steering Fluid
Power steering fluid is petroleum based and should be managed as used oil provided it is not contaminated by other hazardous materials. Like any petroleum-based product, power steering fluid may contaminate soil and water if improperly stored or disposed.

Refrigerants (e.g. Freon)
Freon (also called R-12 or CFC-12) is a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), a type of substance that if released into the air will drift into the upper atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer that protects Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Production and use of CFCs for air conditioning and refrigeration ended in the U.S. in 1995; however vehicles built before 1994 may still use freon in their air-conditioning systems. Non-CFC substitute refrigerants, such as HFC-134a (also called R-134a), exist; however, some substitutes may contain or be contaminated by flammable materials, or they may have high ?global warming potential (GWP).? GWP is a measure of how much effect a given refrigerant may have on global warming as compared to carbon dioxide, which has a GWP equal to 1. The lower the GWP, the more ?environmentally friendly? the refrigerant. Even currently used refrigerants with relatively ?modest? GWPs have GWP values over 1000. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits the venting of any automobile refrigerant.

Sodium Azide Air Bags
Sodium azide, the chemical used to trigger air bags to deploy, is as poisonous as sodium cyanide. Ingesting as little as 50 milligrams can lead to a coma-like state within five minutes. Ingesting slightly more can lead to death within 40 minutes. Sodium azide has the appearance of common table salt, but it kills everything from bacteria and fungi to mammals. At least 11 million pounds of sodium azide has already been manufactured into the vehicle airbags in the United States as of 2000.

Sodium azide is water-soluble. If an airbag cartridge is broken, the sodium azide can migrate into sewers, surface waters and groundwater systems if exposed to water. If not removed from vehicles prior to crushing, the canister can be smashed, spilling sodium azide on the ground and generating toxic dust that humans and animals could breathe in. Once vehicles are crushed, they are shredded. Vehicles with airbags remaining in place can trigger explosions inside the shredder due to the sodium azide in the cartridge.

Storage Tanks (Underground and Above Ground)
Storage tanks can break down over time and leak. Modern tanks contain corrosion resistant coatings and secondary liners, and leak detection systems. Leaks can occur nevertheless. Storage tanks that are buried underground can contaminate the soil and groundwater and go undetected for long periods of time, which increases the volume of contaminants getting into the environment.

Spills commonly occur at the point of filling storage tanks. Modern tanks are equipped with overfill prevention devices. However, these devices do not completely protect the area around the tank. Care must be taken to avoid spills.

As mentioned previously in the ?Operations? section of this Topic Hub, used tires present a health hazard because they provide breeding grounds for disease carrying mosquitoes, and they are also a fire hazard. The storage and disposal of used tires is regulated by every Great Lakes state as well as U.S. EPA. Tire piles must be managed according to state and local regulations. Many county and municipal governments also have regulations related to used tire disposal. Proper, controlled storage of used tires will also minimize health hazards and fire liabilities. This can result in environmental compliance and a savings on insurance premiums.

Transmission Fluid
Transmission fluid may contain toxic metals, including lead. The heavy metals used in transmission fluid can cause severe nervous system damage to wildlife and other animals if disposed of improperly.

Windshield Wiper Solution
The solution may contain methanol (up to 100%), detergent and water. Methanol is an air pollutant (volatile organic compound, or VOC) and is highly toxic. Methanol may be readily absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Exposure may cause blurred vision, headache, dizziness or nausea. Motor dysfunction and blindness may also occur depending upon degree and level of exposure to methanol. Windshield wiper solution may also contain small amounts of ethylene glycol or propylene glycol (see ?Antifreeze? above for more information on these substances).


The Topic Hub™ is a product of the Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange (P2Rx)

The Auto Salvage-Great Lakes Region Topic Hub™ was developed by:

Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable
Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable
Contact email:

Hub Last Updated: 8/2/2012

GLRPPR is a member of the Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange, a national network of regional information centers: NEWMOA (Northeast), WRRC (Southeast), GLRPPR (Great Lakes), ZeroWasteNet (Southwest), P2RIC (Plains), Peaks to Prairies (Mountain), WSPPN (Pacific Southwest), PPRC (Northwest).


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