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Mercury Fever Thermometer Exchanges

Many municipalities and organizations are choosing to conduct mercury fever thermometer exchanges in order to remove the threat of spilled mercury in homes and to educate the public about mercury. This document is intended to assist you in safely and responsibly conducting a mercury fever thermometer exchange.

Additional information can be found in Health Care Without Harm's "How to Plan and Hold a Mercury Fever Thermometer Exchange."

Section 1: Setting Up an Exchange/Logistics
One of the first things you need to decide is where and when to hold the exchange. It is important to choose a location that is easily accessible and well-known in the community, such as a community center, school, hospital, workplace, town hall, library, or fire station. Alternatively, you may want to hold the exchange at an upcoming community event, such as a local Earth Day, health fair, or hazardous waste collection day. The advantages to this are that you can piggy-back off the publicity efforts for the event and expect good attendance.

Wherever you hold the event, be sure to take safety into consideration. If possible, do not hold a mercury thermometer exchange in a carpeted room. If a carpeted room is your only choice, it would be wise to place a large piece of plastic under the table and the area where people will be handing in the mercury thermometers. (Note that some plastics can be extremely slippery, so caution should be used if this option is chosen.) In case of a spill, the plastic can be rolled up and disposed of as hazardous waste. If possible, do not hold the exchange in highly trafficked areas - not in front of an elevator, not in the direct path at the main entrance, not near a security checkpoint. Be sure to have and know how to use a mercury spill kit. (See section 4 for more details on spill control.)

It is also very important that all materials promoting the exchange tell people to bring their thermometers in their original cases or another rigid container, such as a toothbrush case; the containers should be placed inside zip-lock plastic bags.

You will need at least two 5-gallon buckets with lids to collect the thermometers. Screw cap lids that can be easily closed are preferable, as the buckets should be sealed at the end of the collection event. One bucket should be used to collect the intact thermometers and the other to collect broken thermometers and any other mercury materials that people might bring in. (Section 3 contains more details on the collection procedure.)

Section 2: Advertising Your Exchange
The success of an exchange depends on the successful promotion of the event. If people do not know about the event, you've lost your opportunity to collect thermometers and to educate about the health and environmental impacts of mercury.

You can use many methods for advertising your thermometer exchange. Keep in mind that you should distribute materials to publicize the event four to six weeks in advance; and, the press should be re-contacted the week before the exchange.

Efforts to publicize the event might include a press release to local media, a public service announcement for radio and TV, paid advertisements, a flyer or poster, announcement on a local cable show, a community calendar listing in your local paper, or web site announcement. Each of these is briefly discussed below.

  • A press release distributed to local newspapers and media outlets
    In addition to the date, time and place of the event, the press release could include some background information about potential effects of mercury on human health and the environment, and why it is desirable to remove the mercury contained in fever thermometers and other common products from the municipal waste stream.

    You may also want to mention the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's statewide fish advisory about mercury-contaminated fish to demonstrate the effect mercury can have on the environment and human health. Check to see whether the MDPH has issued a specific advisory for a lake, pond or river in your community.
  • A public service announcement (PSA) distributed to local radio and television stations A PSA, intended to be read by an announcer in 30 seconds or less, should be short and to the point. It should include an opening sentence or two that conveys the relevance of the event to people?s lives, and then provides the details about the event.
  • Example public service announcement:

    Many of us have mercury fever thermometers in our medicine cabinets. But did you know that if a mercury thermometer breaks, the spilled mercury is toxic and can pose a serious health threat to you and your family?

    On Saturday, June 3, (Anytown) residents can bring your mercury fever thermometers to the Department of Public Works on (?????) Street between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. and receive a FREE digital thermometer as a replacement, while supplies last.

    This one-day event is sponsored by the (Anytown) Health Department. For more information, contact the (Anytown) Recycling Coordinator at (###-###-####), e-mail (recycling@anytown.ma.us) or visit (www.anytown.ma.us)

  • A paid advertisement in the local newspaper If your budget permits, an advertisement is a good way to guarantee information about the exchange will be published in the local newspaper.
  • A flyer Flyers can be sent through the mail, distributed at town meetings, drop-off recycling centers or landfills, municipal offices, libraries, and, with permission, at local coffee shops or other businesses.
  • An announcement or featured program on local cable television or radio station Most cable television stations have a "community calendar" listing where you can submit information about the exchange. In addition, many cable stations have local community affairs programs on various topics. Find out whether the coordinator of the exchange or another appropriate person could be scheduled to discuss the thermometer exchange and the broader issue of mercury's effect on the environment and public health on a local program. Many radio stations also have public affairs programs that feature interviews about local events or issues. Check into that possibility as well.
  • A poster displayed at various locations around the community A ready-made poster that can be customized for each exchange can be downloaded from NEWMOA's Web site (http://www.newmoa.org/prevention/mercury/schools/poster.pdf). The poster can be edited using the full-version of Adobe Acrobat. If you do not have the software, please contact NEWMOA for assistance.
  • A community calendar listing in your local paper Many local newspapers have calendars where you can promote your exchange free-of-charge.
  • Post information about the exchange on relevant websites.

Section 3: Conducting the Exchange
Collection Procedure: Collect the thermometers in plastic 5-gallon buckets with lids. Ideally you should have at least 2 buckets, one for collecting intact thermometers and other intact mercury devices, such as thermostats. The other bucket should be used to collect broken thermometers, elemental mercury and spill clean up material. Massachusetts DEP regulations allow for the handling of intact mercury devices as universal waste, a special category of hazardous waste set up to encourage collection and recycling. Broken thermometers, elemental mercury and spill clean up materials must be handled as hazardous waste.

See the DEP factsheet "Universal Waste Rule in Massachusetts: Information for Small Quantity Generators" for more details.

Each bucket should be labeled with its contents (mercury thermometers), the type of waste, hazardous or universal, and the date. The hazardous waste bucket label must also indicate that the waste is "toxic."

The labels should look like this:

DATE ____________________
DATE _______________________

It's best to collect the thermometers as they come, in their cases. You should record the number of thermometers brought in for exchange. It's a good idea to track the number as the day progresses. You may also want to record the number of participants.

It's a good idea to set a rule for how many replacement thermometers to hand out to each participant. Most exchanges give only one, regardless of the number of mercury thermometers brought in. If that is your plan, make sure that everyone participating in the exchange knows this rule because invariably some people will ask for more than one replacement thermometer.

Be prepared for people to bring in other items containing mercury, such as thermostats, fluorescent bulbs, or even elemental mercury. It is wise to decide ahead of time whether you will accept these other items. Although it is hard to turn away someone trying to do the right thing, you want to be sure that you can handle other mercury-containing equipment. Find out what mercury devices your recycler will accept and the approximate costs ahead of time.

You should also be prepared for a school official to ask you to take the 100 laboratory thermometers or 5 pounds of elemental mercury they have been storing, or for a local clinic to call you about a couple of blood pressure devices. Local businesses may also contact you about mercury devices.

[Building contractors can recycle mercury thermostats through certain wholesalers that are participating in the Thermostat Recycling Corporation's (TRC) collection and recycling program.]

Educational Materials: A mercury fever thermometer exchange event is a good opportunity to educate the public about mercury hazards. Here are a few ideas about what information could be distributed.

The Department of Public Health (DPH) has a summary of federal and state fish consumption advisories at: http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/environmental-health/exposure-topics/fish-wildlife/fish/.

The DPH also has a list of fish consumption advisories for specific Massachusetts water bodies. If a water body near you has a specific fish consumption advisory, this is a good time to make people aware of it. The list can be found at http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/environmental-health/exposure-topics/fish-wildlife/fish/freshwater-fish-consumption-advisory-list-and-map.html.

Health Care Without Harm has developed a brochure titled "Mercury Thermometers and Your Family's Health." You may be able to obtain copies of this brochure by contacting them. This website also has mercury general information brochures in Spanish, Thai, Cambodian, Chinese and Korean languages.

Arranging for Recycling: Many hazardous waste/recycling facilities recover mercury from products, refine it and make it available for reuse in new mercury products. Some of these facilities are listed at: www.ehso.com/mercury.htm.

It's very important to choose a facility that is fully permitted and that has not incurred any EPA or OSHA violations. You may want to choose a facility that is on the Massachusetts state contract for recycling mercury devices because the MassDEP has already thoroughly investigated these facilities. The current companies on state contract can be found by going to www.comm-pass.com, clicking on the word "search," scrolling down to the end of the page and typing "FAC26" into the box for "bid reference number."

It's a good idea to select a mercury recycler before you hold the exchange. You can then find out whether the facility has any special labeling, collection, or transportation requirements. Some mercury recyclers also provide the collection bins free-of-charge.

Be prepared for individuals turning in their thermometers to ask you what will be done with the mercury in the thermometers. It may come as a surprise to many that the mercury in their thermometers could end up back in commerce in another mercury device. Scientists, regulators, and policy-makers are currently debating how-and whether-to retire, or safely dispose of mercury long-term.

At this time, recycling is considered the best option for disposal of mercury devices. Mercury continues to be used in some products, such as energy efficient fluorescent lights, for which substitutes do not yet exist. By recycling mercury, less mercury will be mined for these uses. Mining can lead to significant air emissions of mercury and other pollutants.

Although there is broad agreement on mercury's toxicity, mercury is still used in products that do have viable, cost-effective alternatives. This is yet another reason why thermometer exchanges can be so important; they can be used as an opportunity to educate individuals about which products still contain mercury and their non-mercury alternatives.

Section 4: Spill Clean Up
If one or more thermometers break and spill during the exchange, you need to know how to safely handle the spill.

It is important to take immediate precautions to protect yourself and others participating in the exchange. You should keep all people away from the area to avoid spreading the contamination.

The general rule-of-thumb is that if the spill is less than one pound (approximately 2 tablespoons), reasonably contained and on a non-porous surface, you can clean up the spill yourself-if you follow MassDEP's mercury spill clean up instructions at: http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/massdep/toxics/sources/cleaning-up-elemental-mercury-spills.html.

If the spill is more than two tablespoons, you are required to report the spill to MassDEP. Call 888-304-1133 immediately. In addition, if the spill is on a porous surface such as a carpet, or if the mercury droplets are widely dispersed in a room, it would be wise to call for professional assistance.

Never vacuum or sweep up the spilled mercury. This will spread the mercury and contaminate the vacuum or broom.

Place the mercury and the materials you used to clean it up in an unbreakable container or plastic bag, and place this bag in the bucket labeled for hazardous waste.



Last Modified 08/25/2020

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