Reducing all sources of pollution and wastes is a long-standing policy of the NIH. However, only small amounts of mercury are in use in NIH facilities. So why the all the fuss? There are many good reasons:
- Prevention of Occupational Health Hazards Associated with Mercury.
There are significant health risks with the exposure to mercury...
and it can even kill. No "Mad Hatters" are wanted at NIH!
- Avoiding Mercury Spills, Downtime and Clean-up Costs.
The most common hazardous material (HAZMAT) spill on NIH facilities is mercury. Spills of even small amounts of mercury can quickly spread, requiring evacuation of contaminated areas until they are decontaminated. Mercury spills can be very difficult and costly to clean up. Some materials such as carpeting cannot be decontaminated and must be removed and discarded. Several incidents involving breakage of thermometers in incubators and other expensive scientific equipment have occurred, requiring disposal of the equipment. Wastes contaminated with mercury must be handled as hazardous waste. They must be processed in specially designed retort (distillation) facilities to separate out the mercury before the waste residues are disposed of in secure chemical waste landfills. Costs associated with decontamination, special waste handling, and disposal processes are considerably higher than other common types of hazardous waste.
- Targeted Pollution Prevention Programs Work.
All previous NIH pollution prevention efforts focused on a specifically targeted pollutant or waste stream have been highly successful. Examples include voluntary retrofilling or replacement of all high voltage transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and an ongoing program to minimize generation of radioactive and mixed wastes (radioactive chemical wastes) from our research laboratories. The mixed waste minimization program was an unprecedented success. Generation of mixed wastes by NIH has been reduced by over 99% relative to the mid 1990's. Potential expenditures of several million dollars for treatment and disposal costs have been avoided by these source reduction activities.
- Environmental Protection. Eliminating all unnecessary use of mercury in our facilities reduces the potential for releases and pollution. Mercury is a bad actor in the environment - classified by the EPA as a persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) pollutant. Even small amounts of mercury can cause significant pollution. It has been estimated that the amount of mercury in a single fever thermometer (about one gram) is enough to contaminate a twenty acre lake making the fish unsafe to eat.
- Increase the use of Alternatives
Satisfactory alternatives are now available for almost all uses of mercury.