Mercury conducts electricity, expands and contracts with temperature, possesses anti-bacterial and antifungal properties, and readily amalgamates with other metals. It is an extremely useful substance that has many everyday applications in healthcare facilities and other workplaces. It is also a persistent bioaccumulative toxin that can be hazardous if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed dermally. There is minimal risk of exposure during normal use of mercury-containing products; however, when incinerated or improperly disposed of, mercury can be released into local waterways, air, or the environment.
Healthcare waste can contain up to 50 times more mercury than general solid waste. The American Hospital Association has entered into a partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to eliminate the use of mercury in hospitals by 2005. Many state governments and individual healthcare facilities have established best management practices for the management of mercury-containing products.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation suggests the following best management practices for healthcare facilities:
Use alternatives for products that contain mercury. Alternative mercury-free products can make your workplace safer and decrease waste disposal costs. Pilot testing new alternative products in a variety of settings is important. It allows staff to provide feedback, and can help to determine the viability of a given product in your facility.
Mercury-containing items typically found in healthcare settings include the following:
- esophageal dilators (bougie tubes)
- Cantor and Miller Abbott tubes
- feeding tubes
- dental amalgams
- various laboratory chemicals (fixatives, stains, reagents, preservatives)
- button-cell batteries
- fluorescent lamps
- switches and relays (in some lights and appliances)
Recycle mercury-containing products when they can no longer be used. Numerous vendors across the country accept and process Mercury for recycling. Various vendors provide pre-paid shipping containers that can be filled with Mercury products and shipped directly to the vendor's recycling facility. Recycle mercury thermostats through the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), and through TRC sign up to become a community collection center for residential thermostats.
Establish practices to handle and dispose of mercury and mercury-containing equipment correctly.
Develop policies that support best management practices.
Bar the practice of sending mercury fever thermometers home with patients. Many states have banned the sale of mercury fever thermometers.
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