EPA Region V
Mercury 
Fact Sheet  
#1
 
 Mercury in Medical Waste
Keeping Mercury Out of Medical Waste
  
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Ball  Why be concerned with mercury?   

Ball  How big a problem is mercury disposal in medical waste incinerators?   

Ball  What can you do?   

Ball  What is EPA doing about mercury in the environment?  


Mercury continues to be used in numerous products because it is the only common metal that exists in the liquid state at ordinary temperatures. This property, along with ease in amalgamating, or forming alloys with other metals, makes mercury a unique and useful metal. 

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. 
 

How Big a Problem Is Mercury Disposal in MWIs? 
 
Approximately 5,000 MWIs, distributed evenly throughout the country, operate in the United States. About 3,000 of these are hospital incinerators, 150 are commercial units, and the rest are distributed among veterinary facilities, nursing homes, laboratories, and other facilities. Approximately 3,700 incinerators burn general medical waste and 1,300 burn pathological waste. 

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: http://www.epa.gov/ARD-R5/mwi/mwi.htm). 
 
What Can You Do? 

Medical waste consists of products such as:  

     gauze, garments, and bandages 
     paper (disposable gowns, sheets, paper towels) 
     pathological waste (human and animal body parts and tissues) 
     sharps (hypodermic needles, scalpel blades, syringes, broken or unbroken glassware  including thermometers) 
     plastics ( trash bags, sharps containers, IV bags, tubes, specimen cups) 
     waste chemicals 
     laboratory solutions 
     drugs 

 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. 
 
What is EPA doing about mercury in the environment? 
  
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a proposed rule to regulate emissions from MWIs in the Federal Register on February 27, 1995. The rule proposes standards and guidelines for new and existing MWIs to reduce the emissions of numerous pollutants, including mercury, from them. New MWIs would have to control emissions using the maximum achievable control technology (MACT). The proposed MACT for mercury is an 85 percent reduction from typical uncontrolled emissions of mercury from MWIs. 

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. 

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