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  April 8, 2002

Dempsey Hospital Eliminating Mercury
By Kristina Goodnough

If you look closely, you may notice the "greening" of John Dempsey Hospital. That's because the hospital has rid itself of mercury glass thermometers and switched to a more environmentally friendly version, in an effort to minimize pollution and reduce hazardous waste.

The switch was completed earlier this year, when the intensive care units converted to electronic thermometers, joining other parts of the hospital that had already taken that step.

"Our switch to mercury-free thermometers is the result of a memorandum of understanding to improve the environment, signed in 1998 between the American Hospital Association and the Environmental Protection Agency," says Nick Noyes, director of clinical engineering, a member of the hospital's environmental health and safety taskforce. The taskforce is working to eliminate mercury where it can.

The memorandum calls for the health care industry to minimize production of pollutants and reduce the volume of waste generated. It specifically asks hospitals to eliminate mercury-containing wastes by 2005.

"Our hospital probably generated only a cup of spilled mercury a year and we always had a good program in place to respond to spills," says Noyes. Trained technicians clean up mercury spills with a special HEPA filter vacuum, then the mercury is disposed of as hazardous waste. But by switching to electronic thermometers, even the small amount of spilled mercury from broken thermometers can be eliminated.

"Mercury is not really that volatile a substance, but if it is disposed of improperly, it can get into the atmosphere or into water supplies. From there it accumulates in the tissue of fish and passes into the food chain, where it affects wildlife and humans," Noyes says.

Some hospital staff were initially reluctant to switch from mercury glass thermometers, concerned that the non-mercury models might not work as well. So, together with staff of the neonatal intensive care unit, Catherine Tuccillo, Ted Rosenkrantz, and Ann Cinotti, Noyes ran parallel studies comparing the two models. The studies showed they were equally accurate.

The staff soon got used to the change. "The nurses love our new thermometers," says Tuccillo, coordinator of the neonatal intensive care unit. "They are reliable and fast, taking only 10 seconds to analyze an axillary [armpit] temperature versus the three minutes required for an axillary temperature with mercury thermometers. That's a huge savings in labor when you consider the hospital staff takes more than 100,000 temperatures a year.

"We also think the mercury-free thermometers are better for infection control, since the probe has a disposable cover that is used only once," Cinotti adds.

The next target in the drive toward a mercury-free hospital is sphygmomanometers, the blood pressure recording devices. "These aren't quite the problem the mercury thermometers were," says Noyes. "There aren't as many of them in use and they are generally fixed to the wall, so there's less chance they'll get broken."

Nonetheless, the hospital has budgeted money to switch to mercury-free units in the next fiscal year. Mercury thermometers in clinics and doctors' offices will also be replaced.

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