Mercury Reduction Outreach: Health Care Facilities

Hospitals, nursing homes, doctor offices, clinics, emergency care facilities and veterinarian offices have all used or continue to use devices that contain mercury. Even facilities that have purged mercury-containing devices may still have mercury in pipes and drains from spills long ago.

When mercury is allowed to escape down a drain, it comes in contact with water and becomes a contaminant that must be removed by your local wastewater treatment plant. Once in the water, it can be difficult and costly to remove or reduce mercury to safe limits.

Where might mercury be found in health care facilities?

Mercury may be found throughout health care facilities in products such as thermometers, blood pressure gauges, dilation and feeding tubes, certain batteries, fluorescent lamps, thermostats, sumps, pumps, boilers, older exterior latex paint, lab stains and lab reagents.

Mercury may also be found in sewer pipes. Mercury can settle at a low point such as a sump or trap and remain in the pipes of a facility for many years. Often the slow dissolution of the mercury in a sump, trap or pipe is enough to cause exceedance of mercury limits in wastewater even after best management practices are implemented. Hot spots in a facility's piping may appear where laboratories or equipment maintenance areas were located. Whenever traps or sumps are moved or cleaned, the solid contents should be treated as a hazardous waste unless proven otherwise.

Why the concern?

Mercury is Toxic:

Although mercury performs many useful functions, it is toxic and can impair the way we see, hear and function.

In the environment, a percentage of mercury undergoes a biological/chemical process and is converted to methylmercury, which is a more toxic form of mercury.

Mercury poisoning can attack the central nervous system in humans. Women of child-bearing age and children, especially those under the age of six, are most susceptible to mercury poisoning.

Stricter Regulation:

Wastewater treatment plants are facing increased regulatory attention for levels of mercury in the wastewater they treat and ultimately discharge into Indiana waters. As a result, treatment plants throughout the state need the cooperation of business, industry and citizens to minimize the amount of mercury escaping down the drain.

What can health care facilities do to help?

  • Complete a mercury assessment of your facility by using the checklist referenced below;
  • Consider satellite offices or laboratories when completing a mercury assessment;
  • Phase out mercury-containing medical products and equipment, when possible;
  • Substitute mercury-free batteries for mercuric oxide (mercury-zinc) batteries;
  • Use safe, non-mercury cleaners and degreasers in labs, housekeeping departments and maintenance areas;
  • Replace mercury-containing thermostats and switches with mercury-free alternatives when remodeling or replacing old equipment;
  • Purchase septic tank and sump pumps that contain magnetic dry reed switches, optic sensors or mechanical switches instead of mercury tilt switches;
  • Examine use of other mercury-containing products in your facility including generators, high intensity lamps and manometers and consider switching to mercury-free alternatives;
  • Implement a mercury-free purchasing policy;
  • Conduct outreach internally to doctors, nurses and staff on mercury substitution initiatives and education on the cost of cleanup if a mercury spill occurs; and
  • If eligible, consider applying for the Making Medicine Mercury-Free Award through Hospitals for a Healthy Environment.

Other Resources

For additional information call (800) 988-7901 or (317) 232-8172