Phase-Out of Mercury Thermometers Used in Industrial and Laboratory Settings
Revising ASTM Standards
With EPA's help, ASTM has updated multiple ASTM standards to approve the use of mercury-free alternatives for temperature measurement. View a list of the updated ASTM standards (PDF) (10 pp, 46 KB, about PDF)
Mercury use in products can lead to releases to the environment through the manufacturing of the products; via spills and breakage; and during the recycling, collection and disposal of mercury-containing products.
As part of a broader initiative to reduce the use of mercury in products, EPA is working with stakeholders to reduce the use of mercury-containing non-fever thermometers in industrial and commercial settings. Measurement and control devices, including glass non-fever thermometers, found in industrial and laboratory settings represent a major use category for mercury-containing products, but in many cases effective non-mercury alternative products exist.
EPA is examining ways to transition to mercury-free alternatives both within EPA and outside of the Agency. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is working with EPA on this effort, announced on February 2, 2011 that it will no longer calibrate mercury-in-glass thermometers for traceability purposes beginning on March 1, 2011.
Information about the Phase-Out of Mercury Thermometers Used in Industrial and Laboratory Settings
- Phase-out main page
- Selecting alternatives
- User Friendly Guide on the Replacement of Mercury Thermometers (PDF) (36 pp, 1.26 MB, About PDF)
- Guide for Federal Agencies on Replacing Mercury-Containing Non-Fever Thermometers (PDF) (16 pp, 404 KB, About PDF)
- Tutorial videos on alternatives, thermometry, traceability and calibration
- Maintaining traceability
In January 2012, EPA issued a final rule incorporating updated ASTM International (ASTM) standards into EPA regulations (PDF) (11 pp, 204 K). These changes provide flexibility to use alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers. The rule applies to certain regulations pertaining to: (a) petroleum refining, (b) power generation, and (c) polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste disposal.
On this page:
Why are mercury thermometers being replaced?
Mercury is well documented as a toxic, environmentally-persistent substance. Several states prohibit the sale of mercury-containing thermometers.
Will the replacement of mercury thermometers be problematic?
For most applications, alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers are available. However, there are certain applications where the use of alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers is more difficult, such as the use of thermometers in high temperature devices such as autoclaves (where alternatives to mercury are not commonly used).
The following document provides a compilation of guidance on the use of alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers.
What types of non-mercury-containing thermometers are currently available?
There are several types of non-mercury-containing thermometers, including both liquid-in-glass and electronic digital thermometers. An example of an electronic digital thermometer is the platinum resistance thermometer. Others include the thermistor and the thermocouple. Non-mercury organic-liquid-filled-glass thermometers are also a replacement for mercury thermometers.
Are non-mercury-containing thermometers as accurate as mercury-containing thermometers?
The non-mercury platinum resistance thermometer is as accurate as mercury-containing thermometers through a wide temperature range. Non-mercury thermistors are accurate but have a limited temperature range. Non-mercury thermocouples are not as accurate as resistance thermometers or thermistors but are widely used because of their durability. Non-mercury liquid-in-glass thermometers are not as accurate and are typically used when applications call for modest uncertainty requirements.
Are non-mercury-containing thermometers as durable as mercury-containing thermometers?
Like a mercury-containing thermometer, the platinum resistance thermometer is sensitive to mechanical shock. Thermistors are less sensitive and thermocouples are very durable. Non-mercury liquid-in-glass thermometers are as durable as mercury liquid-in-glass thermometers.
Are alternative thermometers more expensive than mercury-containing thermometers?
Electronic thermometers are typically more expensive than mercury-containing thermometers. However, using non-mercury-containing thermometers avoids the potential cost of mercury spill clean-up and disposal.
- An unbroken chain of measurements back to NIST standards is maintained; and
- Each step of the chain has known and documented uncertainties; and
- There is a system to ensure that the thermometers and other equipment used remains accurate between calibrations.
Are there Federal and State regulations which require the use of mercury thermometers?
Yes, some Federal and State regulations contain requirements to use mercury thermometers either directly or through citations of standards and methods from organizations such as ASTM International and the American Petroleum Institute (API).
With regulations requiring the use of mercury thermometers, how will the industrial and commercial community be able to reduce the use of mercury thermometers?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps to revise its regulations to allow non-mercury alternative thermometers. In addition, EPA is working with ASTM International and the API to revise their standards to include flexibility allowing non-mercury alternatives.
Is there a technical basis for requiring the use of mercury thermometers?
No. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has concluded that there are no fundamental barriers to the replacement of mercury thermometers. NIST and EPA are collaborating to resolve difficulties in using alternative thermometers in certain elevated temperature applications, such as autoclave operations and asphalt processing.
How and where do I dispose of an industrial mercury-containing thermometer?
For industrial thermometers, you may:
- Ship them through a hazardous waste transporter to a mercury recycling facility,
- Directly ship them as “universal waste” to a mercury recycling facility, or
- Small businesses may be able to dispose of them at a local collection event, collection facility, or destination facilities for “universal waste.”
Contact your state hazardous waste authority for information on state regulations that may apply to you, as these regulations vary by state (including the definition of universal waste). State hazardous waste authorities can also help you locate a mercury-containing device recycling facility. You may also locate a mercury-containing device recycling facility online that is nearest you by searching Earth911.com .
If a thermometer breaks, extra steps are needed to avoid harmful exposure to mercury. Read more about proper mercury cleanup and disposal.
Eliminating Mercury in EPA Labs. EPA has numerous laboratories throughout the United States and contracts with many more. EPA is working to reduce overall use of hazardous chemicals, including mercury, in accordance with Executive Order 13148 (PDF) (14 pp, 257 KB, About PDF) (April 21, 2000). EPA issued a memorandum on September 30, 2008, calling for the phase-out of all mercury-containing non-fever thermometers used in EPA laboratories (PDF) (4 pp, 1.4 MB, about PDF). In addition, EPA’s Office of Research and Development issued an internal directive to eventually eliminate all mercury thermometers within the office. Since initiating the program, EPA labs removed and safely disposed of approximately 2,000 mercury-containing non-fever thermometers. EPA has also developed a Guide for Federal Agencies on Replacing Mercury-Containing Non-Fever Thermometers (PDF) (16 pp, 404 KB, About PDF) for other federal agencies to use when developing their own phase-out programs.
Removing Barriers in EPA Regulations and Test Methods. After assessing its own regulations and test methods to locate references to mercury thermometers, EPA in January 2012 updated such references to allow the use of alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers (PDF) (11 pp, 204 K, about PDF). The final rule incorporated ASTM Standards D5865-10, D445-09, and D93-09 in certain regulations that cover petroleum refining, power generation and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste disposal. The proposal for this rule was issued in January 2011 (PDF) (11 pp, 178K, about PDF).
Revising ASTM Standards. EPA is helping ASTM to identify industrial standards and test methods that require the use of glass non-fever thermometers containing mercury to determine whether the use of alternatives is feasible. Read more about ASTM's standards review effort.
To date, multiple ASTM standards have been updated to approve the use of mercury-free alternatives for temperature measurement. View a list of the updated ASTM standards (PDF) (6 pp, 113 KB, about PDF).
- Pilot Project with American Petroleum Institute. EPA is collaborating with the American Petroleum Institute (API) to test non-mercury thermometers in petroleum fuel handling facilities. These tests will provide API with data on the potential for mercury-free alternatives to replace mercury-containing thermometers in these types of facilities. In particular, the pilot will examine the accuracy, durability, and temperature range of mercury-free thermometers in the field.
Promoting Alternatives to Mercury-in-Glass Thermometer. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working to identify and evaluate the effectiveness of alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers. Read an article written by NIST scientists on alternatives to mercury thermometers.
Interstate Mercury Education & Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC). Part of the Northeast Waste Management Officials Association, IMERC serves as a single point of contact for information on mercury-containing products and member state programs for mercury education and reduction. The group also provides technical and programmatic assistance to states with mercury legislation. Read more about IMERC’s activities.
Revision of “Standard Methods for Examination of Water and Wastewater.” A joint publication of the American Public Health Association, the American Water Works Association, and the Water Environment Federation; Standard Methods is a reference document for water and wastewater analysis techniques. Segments of Standard Methods that require the use of mercury-in-glass thermometers are being revised to encourage the use of alternative thermometers. Revisions to Part 2000, Physical and Aggregate Properties, are currently under review. Part 9020, Quality Assurance/Quality Control (under Part 9000, Microbiological Examination of the Standard Methods, 21st Edition), has been updated. The revision suggests that readers abstain, where possible, from using mercury-filled thermometers to avoid potential release of mercury into the environment when a thermometer is broken. The updated version is available to subscribers of Standard Methods and for purchase by others on the Standard Methods’ website.
EPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Thermometry Group developed the following tutorial videos that provide information on mercury-containing thermometer alternatives for industrial and laboratory settings. Along with showcasing the available mercury-free thermometers on the market today, the videos cover important thermometry concepts such as traceability and the proper calibration of thermometers.
For more information, contact Robert Courtnage at EPA, of the Fibers and Organics Branch, at 202-566-1081.