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Mercury Thermometer Threat

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In Washington, D.C., ten of the district's hospitals pledged to phase out their use of mercury products. Each hospital will also host an in-house mercury thermometer roundup to encourage staff to bring in mercury thermometers from their home medicine chests in exchange for a free digital replacement. The campaign also provides hospitals with lists of alternative suppliers of nonmercury medical supplies. Mercury may also be found in blood pressure devices, gastrointestinal tubes, and some batteries. Most of these efforts are also sponsored by Health Care Without Harm.

"We have over 600 hospitals and clinics who have signed a mercury-free pledge," says Health Care Without Harm's mercury coordinator Jamie Harvie.

Retail outlets are getting in on the act as well. "We are extremely pleased with retail response in removing mercury thermometer from shelves and [are] encouraging remaining [retail stores] to make a similar commitment," Harvie says. Eleven leading retailers and manufacturers including Albertson's, Brooks Pharmacy, drugstore.com, and Kmart Corporation have stopped selling the thermometers.

Burned medical waste accounts for 10% of mercury in the air and tossing mercury fever thermometers in the kitchen garbage can is the largest single source of mercury in solid waste, he says.

Still, most human exposure to mercury comes through eating contaminated fish. Pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and young children are particularly at risk from mercury exposure. More than 60,000 children each year may be at risk for learning disabilities because of mercury-contaminated fish eaten by their mothers during pregnancy, according to a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences.

"We are not saying don't eat fish. Instead, learn more about where the hot spots are in local lakes and rivers, consider what type of fish you are eating, and do what you can to keep mercury out of your house," says Hunt Christensen.

Consumers should also remember that "mercury thermometers should never, ever be thrown in the trash, even if they are not broken," Cecilia DeLoach, the D.C. Campaign director Health Care Without Harm, tells WebMD.

"If a mercury thermometer breaks and gets into a carpet, it will vaporize and go into a room and can have health effects on children and others who spend time in the room," she says. The largest risk for mercury exposure is in a small, poorly ventilated room. Even the smallest amount of mercury needs to be treated as a serious issue.

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