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NIH Record

CC Moves to Reduce Mercury

By LaTonya Kittles

What do blood pressure monitors, thermometers and fluorescent bulbs all have in common? Some types of these items may contain mercury, a health hazard when released into the environment. But the Clinical Center has initiated a project to reduce mercury in the building, thereby reducing the risks to humans and the environment.

"Most exposure to mercury is chronic and cumulative, and is usually the result of inhalation or ingestion," said Dr. Michele Evans, CC safety officer. "Typically, employees may be exposed to contamination when a medical device containing mercury breaks. These exposures occur by inhalation and although they are accidental, they are also preventable. That's what the mercury reduction project is all about."

Recent national efforts led by the Environmental Protection Agency and others have shown that the occupational and environmental costs of using mercury might outweigh any other benefits. "Research has shown that a single drop of mercury spilled on the floor can result in hazardous air concentrations in indoor environments," said Evans. Cleaning up mercury spills at the CC is expensive due to the need for trained staff to clean up the spill and dispose of chemical wastes. "Patient care can also be disrupted in such cases because (patients) would need to be removed from the area to ensure that they are not harmed," she added.

The CC safety committee, along with others, is working to reduce the mercury in the CC. One of their first tasks has been to replace equipment that accounted for the most frequent spills.

Whenever possible, new nonmercury medical equipment was purchased, according to Jerlynn Taylor, nurse consultant in the materials management department. NIH hazardous waste staff were critical in removing the old equipment from the patient care areas, and every nursing unit and outpatient clinic was trained in use of the new equipment. "It was a monumental project," said Taylor. "But we couldn't have done it without everyone coming together to get involved."

The group also worked with engineers to remove mercury-containing instrument controls in the building utility systems, and is currently looking at more subtle sources of pollution in the hospital such as laboratory reagents.

"We may not find acceptable alternatives, but we can still limit our risks by minimizing the wastes generated and reinforcing measures to reduce contamination of the work site," said Evans. "In keeping with federal mandates, our goal in the CC is to reduce the use of hazardous materials, including mercury, by 50 percent by the year 2000."

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