Mercury Free Mercury thermometers are being phased out of most laboratories and hospitals and are being replaced with harmless alcohol based substitutes. Learn about Healthcare without Harm’s Making Medicine Mercury Free Program. The LabRATS team facilitates this transition through our Mercury Thermometer Exchange Program. By filling out an exchange form your lab can exchange your mercury thermometers for new spirit thermometers free of charge. Today’s spirit thermometers are accurate alternatives for most laboratory needs.
- Learn more information about the benefits of switching to alcohol based thermometers
- Learn more about other alternatives to mercury thermometers and their relative benefits
Costly Mercury Spills When mercury is spilled EH&S should be contacted immediately and no attempts should be made by lab personnel to clean up the spill. Spills not only consume EH&S employee’s time but also force the contaminated area of the lab to be unoccupied until the spill has been properly handled. EH&S estimates the clean up cost from mercury thermometer breakages to be $66 per thermometer or $134 per month not including environmental and human health impacts.
LabRATS collaborates with EH&S to remove unneeded mercury devices from campus. You may request an exchange when you request a hazardous waste pickup. We also will have thermometer exchange days in many of the buildings on campus during 2007-08. During these days lab occupants can bring their old mercury thermometer to the LabRATS station and be given a new spirit thermometer to replace it. Check out our calendar of upcoming exchange days and locations.
As part of our campaign, the LabRATS team is also looking for Barometers and McLeod gauges that are currently unused. While we do not offer an exchange for either of these devices there was recently a spill from an old barometer that had been left in a lab long past its use. The spill was so extensive that it took EH&S 10-20 hours to clean up. By disposing of unnecessary mercury based equipment in an appropriate and timely fashion, accidents like this can be avoided saving the University time and resources. There are non-mercury alternatives to barometers and vacuum gauges.
To further prevent mercury pollution and safeguard your lab make sure to follow this list of best management practices:
- Make a list of mercury-containing devices and reagents. Eliminate all nonessential mercury sources.
- Replace mercury devices with non-mercury substitutes when available.
- If you must use mercury thermometers for certain lab applications, make sure that they are Teflon coated to prevent spills when broken.
Avoid inhaling mercury vapors by working in a fume hood, or well ventilated area away from heat.
- Store mercury containing reagents and waste in tightly capped and shatter resistant containers away from sinks and drains.
- Prevent skin contact, especially when handing organic mercury compounds such as methylmercury. Organic-impermeable gloves are necessary to prevent accidental contact as happened to a Dartmouth faculty member in 1996.
Human Health Impacts
Mercury based thermometers have been used for hundreds of years to determine temperature. While extremely accurate, it is now known that mercury poses serious health risks for anyone exposed to it. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetus. In the laboratory setting mercury thermometers made of glass compromise safety because they can easily shatter and spread mercury around. Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.
Environmental Health Impacts
In addition to the immediate human health concerns associated with mercury spills, there are substantial environmental concerns regarding the release of mercury into the water and air. Once in the environment, inorganic mercury is transformed to organic mercury (usually methylmercury) via bacteria. Methylmercury bioaccumulates in the muscle tissue of organisms at a much higher rate than it can be eliminated. It can build up in predator fish found at the top of the aquatic food chain to levels that are tens of thousands to millions of times above the level found in the surrounding waters. As a toxic air contaminant, mercury is perhaps the most widely distributed toxic metal in the world due to its ability to vaporize at ambient temperatures. Federal government scientists have estimated that elemental mercury vapor can remain airborne for up to one year and disperse world wide in that time.