Don’t Let Mercury Slip through the Cracks by Christina Clark

Mercury spills are among the most common spills that occur at research institutions and universities.  Data gathered by the New York State Department of Health from 2000-2005 ranked mercury spills third in terms of the number of hazardous substance incidents reported in New York State . Columbia University's own data from 2007 – 2012 YTD ranks mercury spills as the most common incident on campus in that period  - a not a statistic to be proud of!
For the past decade, EH&S has endeavored to remove mercury thermometers from campus with its “give one, get one free” substitution program.  EH&S has swapped more than 500 mercury thermometers for non-mercury devices, and although this equates to 500 potential mercury spills averted, EH&S finds that mercury spills continue to occur, at a frequency greater than all other hazardous materials spills.  
Mercury spills are particularly, well, mercurial, when it comes to clean-up.  Spilled mercury often divides into countless, tiny beads, making finding all of the released mercury difficult.  Also, mercury vapor pressure is dependent upon temperature, so warmer environments will vaporize more mercury, while colder environments will vaporize less.  These factors, among others, complicate the clean-up of a mercury spill.  Typically, mercury spills that are either greater than a standard-sized mercury thermometer or not contained (for example, within a fume hood), will be referred to the University’s emergency response contractor.  This generally comes at a significant cost, but the personnel and resources needed to address such a spill are often too many to make spill response by EH&S an efficient option.      
In an effort to better prepare for inevitable mercury spills and the challenges that accompany them, EH&S is undertaking a University-wide initiative and system for laboratories to “register” their mercury devices with EH&S.  The Mercury Device Registration Program, which is a complement to the perennial mercury thermometer exchange program, will allow for improved tracking of mercury devices in residence and allow EH&S to focus its efforts helping those who absolutely must maintain a mercury device(s), establish safe storage and handling procedures, prepare them with necessary knowledge about immediate, defensive actions when a mercury release occurs, and ensure EH&S has adequate resources at the ready to assist laboratories in the event of an incident.  The registration process is simple and can be performed on paper @ or via the LATCH (see “Lab Safety Assessment Tools” article). The first step in making your laboratory a mercury safe environment is to get registered today!  
For more information on non-mercury alternative alcohol thermometers, please visit: and to review the Mercury Falling  lessons-learned bulletin visit

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