On the other hand, mercury is very toxic to humans even in small doses. It affects the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver and affects the ability to feel, see, hear, taste, and move. Mercury-contaminated fish eaten by pregnant women can affect fetal development. Therefore, mercury loadings to the environment need to be reduced and, where possible, eliminated. The use of alternatives to mercury-containing medical products and the proper disposal of broken or spent products will help reduce mercury in the environment.
At hospitals mercury-containing products can end up in regular trash or in medical waste. Definitions 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 and is
incinerated at high temperatures, it becomes gaseous and exits through
smokestacks into the air. The mercury then settles on land and in water where
it can be ingested by fish and wildlife. Mercury accumulates in living tissue
as it moves up the food chain and eventually reaches humans.
These MWIs are a large source of mercury to the environment. There is up to
50 times more mercury in medical waste than in general municipal waste, and the
amount of mercury emitted from general medical incinerators averages more than
60 times that from pathological incinerators. Visit our MWI information page (Original URL:
Medical waste consists of products such as:
gauze, garments, and bandages
Medical waste that contains mercury or has been contaminated by mercury should be kept out of the waste stream.
There are three ways you can help keep mercury out of the medical waste stream:
* Use alternative products that do not contain mercury whenever possible. For example, digital thermometers and sphygmomanometers that do not contain mercury are available. Rechargeable batteries or batteries that do not contain mercury (alkaline or carbon-zinc) can be used. Mercury was used historically for weights in tubing but has mostly been replaced with tungsten.
* Separate mercury-containing products before they get into the incineration waste stream. Thermometers, button batteries, and many other mercury-containing products are considered to be hazardous waste in many communities. These products should be disposed of in accordance with state regulations. They might require special handling and transportation. Alkaline and carbon-zinc batteries contain little mercury, but check with your local municipal recycling program to see if they can be recycled.
* Recycle mercury-containing products as much as possible to keep mercury
out of the environment. Source reduction is the preferred method for reducing
mercury, but in some instances recycling can be implemented as an alternative.
For example, mercury-based amalgam, the most widely used dental restorative
material, has been successfully captured and recycled by many dentists using
special amalgam traps and filters.
The rule would also establish emission guidelines and compliance schedules for use by states to develop state regulations to control emissions from MWIs. Even with implementation of the MACT rule, there will still be a need to keep mercury out of the waste stream.
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