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Mercury Man Meets the Mad Hatter

Is this the title of a wrestling match? No, it's a slogan for the kick-off of the "Mad as a Hatter? Campaign for a Mercury-Free NIH" on Thursday, Apr. 26, at 11 a.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10. Sponsored by the Division of Safety, ORS, this first NIH-wide pollution prevention campaign asks NIH staff to pledge to survey their work area for items containing mercury, dispose of them properly and replace them with mercury-free alternatives if possible. A drawing from pledges submitted will result in prizes to some lucky participants.

The kick-off coincides with Earth Day and Take Your Child to Work Day. There will be handouts and presentations to help employees, their families and the community understand the hazardous effects of mercury in workplaces, homes, schools and the environment. The kick-off will feature an appearance by Mercury Man, spiritual leader of the fight against mercury. He is sponsored by the organization Health Care Without Harm.

Where is mercury found? In mercury-filled thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, reagents and a wide array of laboratory apparatus and electrical equipment. In 1996, the Clinical Center took steps to eliminate all unnecessary uses of mercury in medical devices and laboratory chemicals. Nearly 1,500 devices were removed and today the CC is virtually mercury-free. The new campaign builds on this success and not only covers mercury-containing devices and chemicals in laboratories, but will also concentrate on reducing mercury in electrical equipment such as switches, thermostats, fluorescent light bulbs and batteries. "For most uses of mercury, there are now effective substitutes and use of these alternatives is encouraged," said Ed Rau of the Environmental Protection Branch, DS/ORS. "A little bit of mercury can cause a lot of pollution. We don't have much left here, but we want to eliminate as much of it as possible. If you must use mercury, keep any waste material containing mercury separate from all other wastes. This avoids contamination of other wastes and allows for recycling of the mercury."

Mercury spills from broken thermometers are the most common hazardous material response incidents at NIH facilities. Even small mercury spills from a broken thermometer can slowly evaporate and contaminate indoor air to hazardous levels. Spill clean-up and decontamination requires special expertise and equipment provided by the NIH Fire Department.

Why mention the Mad Hatter? In the 1865 classic, Alice in Wonderland, author Lewis Carroll selected a hat maker as the demented host of the tea party. Hatters of the time commonly exhibited psychotic symptoms, hence the expression "mad as a hatter." Carroll was probably unaware that the hatters' disabilities were symptoms of mercury poisoning. In the mid-1800s, hat makers used hot solutions of mercuric nitrate to shape wool felt hats. They typically worked in poorly ventilated rooms, which led to chronic occupational exposure to mercury, neurological damage and the hatters' syndrome.

DS has a web site to support the campaign with more information about mercury, the campaign and the Hatter's Pledge, which can be accessed at

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