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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Mercury Thermometer Threat

WebMD Health News

Nov. 22, 2000 -- From as far east as Boston to as far west as San Francisco -- including many cities in between -- efforts to ban mercury fever thermometers due to health concerns are sweeping through U.S. homes and hospitals.

Once upon a time, mercury thermometers were the most common way to check for fever. Mercury thermometers are made of glass and are the size of a straw, with silvery-white liquid mercury inside. Each fever thermometer contains approximately one gram of mercury. Mercury is poisonous and attacks the body's central nervous system. It can also harm the brain, kidneys, and lungs.

To put things in perspective: One gram of mercury per year leaked into a 20-acre lake is enough to raise the levels of mercury in fish high enough to trigger warnings to consumers. Nationwide, mercury thermometers contribute 17 tons of mercury to solid waste each year.

In efforts to cut back on mercury in the environment and food supply, the Boston City Council recently banned the sale of mercury thermometers in the city. Stores will have approximately two months to clear their inventories of the remaining thermometers, and violators will be fined. There's also a ban on the sale of mercury fever thermometers in Duluth, Minn.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and several cities and counties in California and Wisconsin. In New Hampshire there's even a state law that prohibits the sale of certain mercury-containing products.

"New Hampshire has the right idea," says Jackie Hunt Christensen, a spokesperson for Health Care Without Harm, a not-for-profit campaign based in Minneapolis that works to eliminate pollution in health care practices. "We need to pass laws at state and federal levels rather than address the issue piecemeal in cities and counties, but we take what we can get."

Other efforts to remove mercury include the "Mercury Thermometers and Family Health in Minnesota" program where mercury fever thermometers are exchanged for mercury-free digital thermometers.

Campaigns to exchange mercury thermometers for digital ones are a "very empowering and a very concrete way to take action to keep mercury out of the environment and out of the food supply," she tells WebMD.

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