Information about the Phase-Out of Mercury Thermometers Used in Industrial and Laboratory Settings
EPA encourages consumers, businesses and other organizations to use non-mercury thermometers whenever possible. Accurate and reliable alternatives to mercury fever and laboratory thermometers are readily available at local pharmacies or through scientific and medical supply companies.
In a mercury thermometer, a glass tube is filled with mercury and a standard temperature scale is marked on the tube. With changes in temperature, the mercury expands and contracts in a consistent fashion and the temperature can be read from the scale. A mercury thermometer can be easily identified by the presence of a silver bulb. If the bulb is red, blue, purple, green or any other color, it is not a mercury thermometer.
Mercury thermometers can be used to determine body temperature (fever thermometers), liquid temperature, and vapor temperature. Mercury thermometers are used to measure the temperature of liquids and vapors in households, laboratory experiments at educational and medical institutions, and industrial applications. The Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) provides a web site with basic information on mercury and non-mercury alternatives. Also provided are links to additional on-line resources.
Household Uses: Common household uses of mercury thermometers include fever thermometers and oven, candy and meat thermometers.
Mercury fever thermometers are made of glass the size of a straw, with a silvery-white liquid inside, and are a common item in many households, schools and medical facilities. There are two general types of mercury thermometers that measure body temperature:
- oral/rectal/baby thermometers, containing about 0.61 grams of mercury; and
- basal temperature thermometers, containing about 2.25 grams of mercury.
Restrictions on Sales of Mercury Fever Thermometers. In order to help remove the threat of mercury fever thermometer breakage and subsequent release of mercury vapor indoors, some states and municipalities have passed laws or ordinances prohibiting the manufacture, sale and/or distribution of these thermometers. As of October 2, 2008, thirteen states have laws that limit the manufacture, sale and/or distribution of mercury fever thermometers: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Oregon, Washington. The Health Care Without Harm Web site presents information on specific state laws and municipal ordinances.
Alternatives: Mercury-free Fever Thermometers. A variety of accurate and reliable mercury-free fever thermometers are available at your local pharmacy. Alternatives most comparable in cost and use to the mercury fever thermometer include battery and solar powered digital thermometers. These can all be used orally, rectally, or in the armpit. You should choose a thermometer that is easy to use and read.
If choosing a battery powered digital thermometer, choose one that contains a replaceable battery; some are not replaceable. The battery is a button cell battery and may contain a small amount of mercury, so it should be recycled through a local battery collection program or household hazardous waste collection center. Consult your local or state collection program regarding where batteries should be taken.
Educational and Medical Uses: Mercury thermometers may be used in many applications, including chemical experiments, water and acid baths, blood banks, ovens and incubators
Industrial Uses: Industrial applications include use in power plants and piping, chemical tanks and vats, heating and cooling equipment, breweries, canneries, bakeries, candy making, dairies, ships, wineries and distilleries, and paint kettles.
EPA has launched an effort to reduce the use of mercury-filled non-fever thermometers used in industrial settings where suitable alternatives exist. EPA is developing an approach to obtain this goal through partnerships with ASTM, NIST, state organizations such as the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) and the Quicksilver Caucus, and others. The agency is initiating a phase out and replacement effort in its own laboratories and is reviewing standards and methods that may require the use of mercury-filled thermometers in order to bring about the opportunity for the use of alternatives. Read about EPA's effort to phase out the use of mercury-filled thermometers in industrial and laboratory settings.
Thermometer cleanup and disposal: If you break a thermometer while using it or if you improperly dispose of it, the thermometer will release mercury vapors that are harmful to human and ecological health. EPA provides information on what to do when a mercury fever thermometer breaks/spills. Many states and local agencies have developed collection/exchange programs for mercury-containing devices such as thermometers. Some counties and cities also have household hazardous waste collection programs. For information about these programs, contact your local collection program to find out whether you can drop your old thermometers off any time or whether you should wait for the next collection effort in your area. You can also use earth911.com to find collection programs in your area -- just type in "thermometer" or "mercury" and your zip code to get a list of programs that accept mercury-containing thermometers.