Pollution Prevention Initiatives
Mercury is a naturally occurring element with unique chemical and physical properties that is a dangerous and often unrecognized hazard commonly found at work, home and schools. The ability of mercury to bioaccumulate in the environment makes it particularly hazardous to humans and animals.
Beginning in 1993, Penn State, under the direction of EHS, implemented a number of pro-active approaches to reduce mercury-containing equipment in use and storage in our facilities. This included the removal of thousands of thermometers from laboratories and other areas. In a June 2001 expansion of this program, EHS began a Mercury Thermometer Exchange Program (MTEP) at Penn State. This programmed approach replaced all mercury thermometers with alternatives that are safe, non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
The benefits of utilizing non-toxic thermometers are several:
- There is little or no environmental impact from these thermometers
- Human exposure to mercury vapors from broken thermometers is eliminated
- Disposal costs of mercury contaminated debris are eliminated
It is estimated the minimum cost to cleanup a small-scale mercury spill is approximately $200. Costs are significantly higher when the cleanup is extended over a large area, such as a laboratory. This can run into the tens of thousands of dollars annually.
Fluorescent Light Tube Recycling
Fluorescent light tubes contain mercury. Improper disposal can result in environmental hazards.
Penn State, through EHS has established a centralized and coordinated program for the proper management of light tubes that are removed from University facilities in accordance with federal regulation 40 CFR 273. The mercury from these tubes is reclaimed by a contracted vendor. University Safety Policy SY31, Lamp Use and Disposal Policy (SY31) governs the use and requires that the replacement of these tubes be low level or non-mercury containing.
During the first two years of this program during a relamping project, over 115,500 mercury-containing bulbs were removed from use and sent for reclamation. Penn State continues to remove and send for reclamation about 12,000 bulbs annually.
Removal of Other Mercury-Containing Devices
Mercury is also commonly used in laboratory equipment such as manometers, pressure gauges, switches, and sphygmomanometers. This equipment contains larger quantities of mercury, thereby presenting a greater environmental and occupational risk.
EHS initiatives associated with our hazardous waste management program and Mercury Thermometer Exchange Program have also targeted these devices for removal and replacement with non-mercury devices, wherever possible. As alternatives to these devices become more readily available and easier to use, we are seeing a decrease in mercury-containing equipment in use. As the equipment is being removed, the elemental mercury from the old units is being consolidated by EHS and recycled by the PA DEP. The replacement of mercury-containing manometers with electronic units eliminates the risk of breakage during operations and potential environmental issues and human exposure associated withe the release of mercury.