The Global Phase-Out of Mercury Thermometers

Several governmental agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are jump-starting an effort to phase out mercury (Hg) thermometers from common use.  At Emory University, we want to follow the same precedent and also raise awareness about the dangers of mercury.  Below are some quick facts about Hg thermometers at Emory:

The most common Hg-containing device at Emory is the Hg thermometer.  An Hg thermometer can easily be recognized by visible inspection of the device.  The “liquid silver” inside a glass thermometer is the easiest way to identify an Hg thermometer, and the silver can be seen inside the thermometer and at the tip.

So what is the big deal about Mercury anyway?  The main concern with mercury is not the use of Hg thermometers; instead, the concern is what happens when/if the thermometer breaks.  Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that releases odorless, colorless, and toxic vapors when exposed to the air.  These vapors are not visible to the naked eye and can cause poisoning symptoms to those exposed.  The EHSO at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio has performed an experiment to show exactly what happens when mercury is released into the air.  They use a UV light to show the vapors released into the environment as soon as mercury is exposed to air.

Our advice to you…The EHSO at Emory asks you to REPLACE your Hg thermometers before they break!  There are several other options, including digital thermometers, alcohol thermometers, and kerosene thermometers.

What’s the benefit of switching?  The most immediate benefit of switching from Hg thermometers to non-Hg thermometers is safety; worker safety, environmental safety, and the safety of the clean-up personnel.  Switching to digital allows for fast equilibration, faster response time (sometimes as little as 1 second), extended temperature range (some range from -196°C to 550°C), and better advancement in data recording.  Also, by switching from Hg thermometers to non-Hg thermometers you can avoid the cost of remediation.  Spending thousands, up to tens of thousands of dollars on a mercury spill clean-up is not uncommon.

How do I dispose of my Hg thermometer?  Any Hg thermometers at Emory can be disposed of via EHSO.  You can email to schedule a pick-up.  We recommend zip lock bags for secondary containment.  Hg thermometers are considered Universal Waste and must be labeled “Used Mercury Containing Article” and the date it was removed from service (or decided to be discarded).  It is ok to label a bag holding multiple thermometers, rather than each individual one. Universal Waste handlers must be informed of proper handling and emergency procedures, which can be done by reading the Quick Facts – Universal Waste sheet on our website

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