Mercury pollution still poses health risk on campus

By Aura Lichtenberg

Mercury barometers, thermometers and other instruments are still being used or are in storage around the University, despite a July deadline the University set to remove the dangerous chemical on campus.

Most people know mercury as the silvery liquid found in thermometers, but as elemental mercury, or methyl mercury, it can pose a risk to human health. Mercury cannot be destroyed and,when disposed of improperly, contaminates the air, water and soil. Breathing the vapor from spilled mercury is poisonous, and mercury spills are expensive to clean.

One gram of mercury, the amount found in thermometers, can contaminate up to 20 acres of lake when disposed of improperly.

The University’s Division of Research Safety has planned for three years to eliminate mercury use in the Colleges of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine as well as McKinley Health Center, while reducing use of mercury in the Colleges of Engineering, LAS, ACES and Beckman Institute. However, the program has not yet been implemented due to lack of funding.

“Due to lack of resources, the only thing that has happened is that the reduction policy was established,” Bedell stated in the e-mail.

Peter Ashbrook, who headed the University’s hazardous waste management program until 1999, said small items like mercury thermometers are often forgotten and tucked away in laboratories.

Ashbrook said he thinks the University could find money to eliminate mercury if it was a priority, but added that it would take much time and labor.

“I doubt that the current staff could handle a special program like this along with their routine duties,” said Ashbrook, now the director of environmental health and safety at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

Some departments on campus have taken matters into their own hands. Staff in the Department of Physics said they removed mercury from all teaching laboratories and lecture demonstrations but still kept mercury barometers in storage. Departments within the College of Engineering, including the Department of Computer Science, say they are mercury-free, too.

U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who is campaigning for stricter mercury regulation, said that Illinois is the sixth among states where the public is at risk of mercury pollution. Last July, Illinois became one of 10 states banning the retail sale and distribution of mercury fever thermometers and mercury novelty products.

The National Institutes of Health recognizes that there are some uses of mercury or mercury-based instruments for which there are no satisfactory alternatives. Therefore, most large institutions and universities strive for reduction rather than complete elimination.

Christal Winters, a coordinator of the program with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said that the entire target school becomes informed, so that students, teachers, and administrators work for the same cause.

Winters said she thinks the University could benefit from a coalition of students, custodial staff, professors and administrators work to represent different areas on campus in the efforts to reduce the amount of mercury on campus..

“It is imperative that you have administration buy in. Before a school can even pledge to become a Green and Healthy School they must have principal support,” Winters said.

Charles Zukoski, the Vice Chancellor for Research, said the research safety division will continue to encourage mercury disposal and recycling. However, the Web site describing the mercury reduction program was no longer available early this week.

University President B. Joseph White previously showed interest in the environmental health of the campus during a television interview at WILL this past January.

Asked about mercury reduction specifically, White stated in an e-mail, “I am asking my colleagues for a quick statue update so we can decide where to go from here.”