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Tips for Disposal of Mercury-Containing Medical Equipment

Oct 12, 2015

Mercury

Mercury is considered hazardous waste by the EPA. While there’ve been numerous successful efforts to substitute mercury with less harmful materials in a variety of applications, there are still plenty of uses for mercury, especially in the healthcare industry. Mercury waste removal in Maryland and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region is one of the areas BWS specializes in. And today, we’d like to talk about rules, guidelines and tips for managing mercury-containing equipment and mercury spills in your facility.

Why is Mercury Dangerous?

Mercury (Hg) is a silver-colored heavy metal that occurs naturally and comes in several different forms. These forms include liquid, vapor, inorganic salts and organomercury compounds. Exposure to mercury may lead to mercury poisoning, which can result in several diseases. Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects the nervous system and may contribute to anything from memory problems to brain damage.

One of the most dangerous types of mercury exposure is inhaling the mercury vapor, as it has more opportunities to reach the brain through lungs and blood. Liquid mercury vaporizes at room temperature, so as soon as it’s out of its container, it fills the air with invisible mercury atoms. Because adults are more tolerant to mercury, mercury poisoning commonly occurs in fetuses and toddlers, causing developmental delays and other negative health consequences.

Where is Mercury Used in a Medical Facility?

You’ll be surprised how many older and modern-day devices and products contain some form of mercury. A typical healthcare facility may use the following mercury-containing objects in its day-to-day operations:

  • Thermometers, barometers, thermostats and manometers
  • Electric switches in ovens, incubators, refrigerators, etc.
  • Mercuric oxide batteries
  • Canter and feeding tubes
  • Thermostat probes in pilot light assemblies
  • Fluorescent HID lamps
  • Sewage traps
  • Electron Microscopes
  • Blood pressure gauges
  • Esophageal dilators
  • Dental amalgam
  • Biolab stains, reagents fixatives and chemicals
  • Pharmaceuticals

How to Handle and Dispose of Mercury-Containing Equipment

Educate

First of all, it helps if you and your staff know specifically which equipment, devices and products you use in your facility contain mercury. In most cases these items are labeled, but this label may not always be visible, such as on a light bulb or an electrical switch. Do your best to educate your staff about potential mercury hazards in your facility, so that they know not to throw away this item in regular trash. If necessary, make an inventory, print out a list and place it next to waste removal containers throughout your facility.

Replace

Today, alternatives exist for almost all mercury applications in healthcare. There are digital thermometers, mercury-free sphygmomanometers, powdered tungsten-filled dilators, etc. They may be initially more expensive, but at the end you will save by eliminating the costly mercury spill management and recycling of the mercury-containing equipment.

Follow the Regulations

When the time comes to retire mercury-containing items or to get rid of broken equipment, don’t put them in a red bag or worse—dispose of as regular trash. The last thing you want is for mercury waste to be incinerated, as it will vaporize and contaminate the environment. Make sure your facility has separate containers for mercury waste and that your staff knows where they are.

Mercury-containing equipment is classified as Universal Waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Depending on the state and amount of mercury, certain types of equipment can be successfully recycled, and at BWS we offer such service to our customers. Other forms of mercury, such as that collected from spills, are not recyclable and will need to be deactivated and disposed of according to the state and federal guidelines.

Addressing Mercury Spills

A mercury spill can lead to mercury poisoning if not handled quickly and correctly. It can also contaminate your facility and environment in general, exposing your staff and patients to dangerous toxins. There are special mercury spill kits available to simplify the cleanup process, but if you don’t have one nearby, make sure your staff follows these EPA guidelines:

  • Have everyone leave the area
  • If mercury landed on a non-smooth/absorbent surface, such as carpeting, this surface will need to be discarded.
  • Put on PPE, such as gloves and eye protection
  • Use a squeegee to gather mercury beads in one place or use a mercury vacuum aspirator if you have one.
  • Collect mercury beads with an eye-dropper and place in a sealable container, then place in a second container.
  • Log the spill and contact your Maryland medical waste removal provider to safely dispose of the mercury waste.

Be sure not to place the gathered mercury beads in a a red bag, regular waste or pour it down the sink. And if you have any other questions or need help with purchasing mercury disposal containers or arranging recycling or mercury waste removal, contact BWS for more information.

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