By Darcy Lewis
Not long ago, a mercury thermometer was a staple in every medicine cabinet. But today, concerns abound over the environmental impact of the toxic element. Multiple federal agencies currently regulate mercury exposure with a confusing patchwork of regulations and laws. Individual states have the option of tightening federal limits.
One thing is clear: Mercury is dangerous to humans. According to a July 2001 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, tiny amounts of mercury accumulate in everyone's body via air, water and food. Significant mercury exposure can cause a wide range of physical maladies. In children, central nervous system problems are most likely, ranging from learning disabilities to mental retardation to blindness.
The report, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, says pediatricians and parents should stop using mercury thermometers. The report notes the amount of mercury in a single thermometer is usually too small to cause harm but "...if the thermometer breaks, the mercury vaporizes and can be inhaled, causing toxicity."
Bill Stratbucker, a pediatrician at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, agrees. "We definitely tell our patients not to keep a mercury thermometer in the house," he says. "The risks outweigh the benefits."
A common problem arises when parents stop using their mercury thermometer but continue to store it in the medicine cabinet. Then, one day, someone opens the cabinet and the thermometer tumbles out, breaking open in the porcelain sink. "No matter how careful they are, people usually end up breaking their mercury thermometers," says LaTrice Porter-Thomas of the Cook County Department of Public Health. "That's why we recommend proper disposal once they no longer use them."
The most important rule regarding disposal is to resist the temptation to simply throw away the thermometer. "Nothing with mercury should go into household trash," she says. "Broken thermometers contribute a significant amount of mercury to our solid waste every year."
Instead, call your local health department or city hall for specific disposal instructions. Most municipalities have annual hazardous waste drop-off days publicized far in advance. Mark your calendar, then store your unbroken thermometer away until the drop-off day.
Cleaning up a spill "It's OK to clean up a single broken thermometer yourself," says Porter-Thomas. "Anything larger is considered a hazardous materials situation that requires professional assistance from your health department." Special mercury spill kits are available from laboratory supply houses. But you can clean up safely by following these tips:
• Keep out children and pets and close the door.
• Open the windows for 24 hours.
• Wear rubber gloves and push the mercury beads together with a business card or cardboard.
• Carefully place the beads and cardboard into a wide-mouth plastic container with a lid. Don't use glass containers, which can break and cause a second spill.
• Shine a flashlight over the spill area to highlight tiny or hidden droplets.
• Use duct tape or packing tape to pick up any remaining mercury.
• Place the gloves and tape in the container along with the mercury, then label and seal it with tape.
• Store the container in a safe place until disposal.
"Whatever you do, don't vacuum mercury or sweep it up with a broom," says Porter-Thomas. "That will spread the droplets even more and contaminate the entire room." Don't flush mercury beads down the toilet or sink, either. Since mercury is a heavy metal, it will remain in plumbing traps indefinitely, possibly continuing to vaporize over time.
If the mercury spills on carpet, it's best to replace the contaminated portion. Following the above precautions, cut out the affected section and place it and the mercury into a plastic container. Then tape and dispose of it safely. The same also goes for any shoes or clothes that come into contact with the mercury during clean-up.
Safer options exist So how can environmentally conscious parents measure a child's fevers? An oral thermometer with a digital readout is probably the best choice, says pediatrician Bill Stratbucker. He generally doesn't endorse trendy $60 ear thermometers because of their temperamental nature. He notes other high-priced options are available, including pacifier thermometers and forehead strips, but calls them too gimmicky to be dependable.
Darcy Lewis is a freelance writer who lives in Riverside with her husband and two boys, ages 3 and 8.