MIT, in conjunction with VWR, the Institute's partner for chemicals and lab supplies, operates a mercury thermometer exchange program that serves to remove mercury from the environment. This program is contributing to MIT's goal of eliminating all products that contain mercury from campus.
The program is based in the VWR chemical stockroom in Rm 56-070. MIT staff or students may bring a mercury-containing thermometer to the stockroom when purchasing a replacement. VWR then pays to return the old thermometers to the manufacturer for destruction. When the program began about four years ago, a large number of thermometers were being returned, but the quantity has trailed off significantly as mercury thermometers are removed from campus.
WHY TARGET MERCURY?
Mercury in the environment is of particular concern because of its toxic characteristics, persistence in the environment and its ability to bioaccumulate. Mercury is well-established as a toxic agent, and long-term exposure to it has been shown to have negative effects on the brain, kidneys and central nervous system.
Developing fetuses are especially susceptible to even small amounts of mercury, with developmental problems prevalent among babies whose mothers are exposed to workplace or environmental mercury. This exposure may result from breathing mercury, exposure through the skin or from eating mercury-containing foods. In some locations, including many in Massachusetts, expectant mothers are cautioned against eating certain species of fish due to the elevated mercury levels they contain. (Fish can concentrate mercury in their bodies by eating other fish and food that contains lower levels of mercury.)
In addition to certain thermometers, other significant sources of mercury include thermostats, barometers, batteries (especially "button batteries" such as those in calculators and hearing aids), fluorescent bulbs, tooth fillings and electrical equipment. Research laboratories also may stock mercury.
While the exchange program operated by VWR applies only to thermometers, other mercury-containing items also are recovered for proper disposal by the Environmental Management Office (EMO). If you have such equipment, liquid mercury from laboratories, or old thermometers that are not being replaced but that you would like to dispose of, call 452-EMOO or use the online waste pickup request form.
Questions about mercury can be directed to the Environmental Medical Service at x3-5360 or the EMO at 452-EMOO.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 7, 2001.