Mercury Reduction Outreach: Colleges and Universities

Educational institutions potentially use a wide variety of mercury-containing products. The list of mercury-containing products may be even larger if the school has an operating medical school or research facility. Even schools 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 colleges and universities?

Mercury may be found throughout campuses in products such as batteries; chemical compounds; cleaning agents, laboratory reagents; elemental mercury for science experiments; fluorescent lamps; specialty lamps; switches, relays and sensors; manometers; thermometers; flame sensors and gauges.

Maintenance areas, vehicle fleet repair shops, auto repair schools, health care facilities, dental and medical schools, science labs and wastewater treatment plants may all have sources of mercury.

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 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 colleges and universities do to help?

  • Complete mercury inventories for the various components of your organization by using the checklists referenced below;
  • Phase out mercury-containing 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;
  • Remove and properly dispose bottles of elemental mercury; and
  • Clearly label items containing mercury and ensure these items are not sent down the drain;

Other Resources

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