EPA Region V Mercury 
Fact Sheet 
 Mercury in Medical Waste:
Use of Alternative Products

Mercury is used in numerous products in the medical industry. While it has several chemical properties that make it a useful and unique compound in the medical industry, it is very toxic in small doses. It is very important to keep mercury-containing products out of the medical waste stream so that mercury is not released into the environment, where it can pose a threat to humans and wildlife. 
Blue Ball  How do I keep mercury out of the "red bag"?   

Blue Ball  What products can I use that don't contain mercury?  

How Does Mercury Get Into the Medical Waste Stream? 

Hospitals, laboratories, nursing homes, and other health care institutions produce various types of trash. Mercury-containing products can end up in regular trash or in medical waste. The exact definition may vary from state to state, but medical waste is waste that is infectious, i.e., covered with blood or blood products. Medical waste is put into infectious waste bags (red bags) and can be burned in medical waste incinerators (MWIs). If mercury gets into the red bags as part of the medical waste and is incinerated at high temperatures, it becomes gaseous and exits through smokestacks. It can then settle on the ground and in the water. 

The mercury then becomes available for ingestion by fish and wildlife. Mercury accumulates in living tissue as it moves up the food chain and eventually can be ingested by humans. State public health departments have issued fish consumption advisories due to the presence of mercury in fish tissue. 

Use Mercury-Free Products  

One way to keep mercury-containing products out of the waste stream is to purchase and use products that do not contain mercury. 

Ask the people responsible for buying medical supplies, laboratory solutions, and other medical products if they know of alternatives to products that contain mercury. 

As a last resort, if you are using products that contain mercury, make sure they are disposed of properly and do not end up in the red bag, where they might be incinerated. Make sure your facility has a mercury spill cleanup kit on hand wherever mercury products are used. Also, try recycling mercury-containing products as much as possible. 

By encouraging hospitals, laboratories, and other medical facilities to buy mercury-free products, we can reduce the amount of mercury that might wind up in medical waste incinerators. 

Mercury Product Substitution 

Broward County, Florida, used a source substitution program to divert nearly 1 ton of mercury per year in medical batteries from incinerators or landfills. To implement the change from mercury battery use, the county surveyed the types, uses, and quantities of medical mercury batteries in use at county hospitals. Also surveyed were other mercury-containing instruments, spill cleanup procedures, and used thermostats and switches. It was found that individual hospitals were using from 100 to 16,000 batteries per year, which were disposed of in regular or biohazardous waste containers. 

County staff then explained to area hospitals the problems with and options for proper battery and mercury-containing waste. It was emphasized that hospitals had legal responsibility for proper management of the waste they generated. County personnel 
returned to hospitals to confirm that staff understood federal, state, and local regulations for waste management and reemphasized that mercury-containing waste was unacceptable at resource recovery facilities or landfills. 

Hospitals gladly changed battery use and waste management procedures when staff were educated about the mercury content of batteries and alternatives to mercury battery use. Of the alternative courses of action available to county hospitals, the preferred course of action for mercury waste reduction was substitution of zinc air batteries for mercury batteries. Mercury batteries on hand were either returned to suppliers or managed as hazardous waste through established haulers. The county calculated that more than 63,000 mercury batteries had been entering Broward County's waste stream, or in excess of 1,750 lb of mercury per year, based on an 8.4-volt mercury battery containing nearly 0.5 oz of mercury. 

Zinc air batteries had been in use for telemetry cardiac monitors at the time the decision to make the change from mercury batteries was made because they perform better. While zinc air batteries are more expensive, they also last longer. One disadvantage of the zinc air battery is that it continues to discharge when not in use, potentially elevating the cost of the batteries over the long run. However, hospital monitors are usually in constant use anyway, so this was not considered a significant factor. 

Taking into account the higher cost of alternative batteries and the avoided costs of managing mercury waste, most hospitals achieved net savings by the switch to zinc air batteries. One hospital was even able to purchase alternative batteries at a cost equal to that for mercury batteries.

Comments or questions regarding this information can be
sent to Alexis Cain:  cain.alexis@epamail.epa.gov
Last updated:  February 23, 1998
Original URL: http://www.epa.gov/ARD-R5/glakes/fact2.htm
Original Page Maintained by Suzanne King