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Mercury Thermometers

Revised May 31, 2000

Broken Mecury Thermometers
Mercury spills, usually the result of thermometer breakage, are one of the most common accidents in research labs. Sixty percent (60%) of the chemical spills on campus in 1999 were from broken mercury thermometers. As mercury easily disperses into fine particles upon impact it can be difficult to clean up. Mercury is also very expensive to dispose of as waste.

We encourage all laboratories to phase out the use of mercury thermometers. We suggest the following alternatives:
Teflon-coated mercury thermometers-- breakage resistant, slightly higher price (about 5 - 10% higher); comparable accuracy.
Spirit-filled, mercury-free thermometers-- relatively non-hazardous (filled with petroleum-based mineral spirits); comparable price; comparable accuracy.
Alcohol-based, mercury-free thermometers-- non-hazardous; comparable price; tend to be less accurate than mercury thermometers.
Microprocessor-based thermometers-- non-hazardous; digital readout; excellent accuracy; on the expensive side.

Alternative thermometers are available from common lab equipment suppliers, such as VWR.

In Case of a Mercury Spill:
Most small spills can be cleaned up with the aid of a mercury spill kit (available in Petrie and Farquharson Volatile Storage Rooms). In the event of a spill, call DOHS, isolate the area. To protect yourself when cleaning a broken mercury thermometer, avoid exposure and injury by wearing gloves, a lab coat, and safety glasses/goggles. See the mercury Material Safety Data Sheet for more details.

Collect the spilled mercury and broken thermometer or other contaminated objects in a leak-proof glass or plastic container. Label the container with a hazardous waste label, and dispose of it through Petrie or Farquharson Science Stores. Mercury spills in a laboratory sink must be cleaned up thoroughly to prevent contamination of the water system. Please report all spills into sinks so that residual mercury can be removed from the sink trap immediately .