Ready to get rid of that old mercury thermometer? You may want to hold off a bit.
On Tuesday, City Council will consider asking staff to organize a thermometer exchange in which mercury thermometer owners can trade in their ancient instrument for a shiny new electronic one.
Despite age-old fears that if a mercury thermometer breaks in your mouth you instantly die, the measure’s sponsor, Councilmember Kriss Worthington is more concerned about what happens when the thermometer is thrown away.
“Mercury is very dangerous,” said Worthington.
Once in a landfill, Worthington said, mercury – a potent toxin that has been shown to cause developmental disorders in babies – can leak into outlying areas contaminating water and soil.
When the mercury is then consumed by humans, which happens most frequently by eating contaminated fish, it can infiltrate a human fetus, said Susan Lee, environmental health associate with the California Public Interest Research Group Charitable Trust (CALPRIG). Lee noted that one in 10 women of childbearing age have dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies.
Fear of mercury exposure has prompted a recent rash of legislative action.
In July, California banned the sale of mercury thermometers without a prescription, and in September the U.S. Senate passed an identical bill. Worthington’s measure would also ban the sale of mercury thermometers even with a prescription.
Worthington acknowledged a thermometer exchange might cost the city thousands at a time when funds are tight, but said the idea has merit.
“There could be thousands [of mercury thermometers] and this gets them out of use,” he said. Worthington envisions a city exchange site where a resident brings a mercury thermometer and a city official disposes it so that there is no danger of a mercury leak.
He noted that the city currently runs similar exchanges for batteries and lead paint.
The effort to close the chapter on mercury thermometers is the easiest battle in the fight against mercury contamination, said Lee. Several household products also contain mercury, including fluorescent lamps and laptop computers.
Lee said that while mercury thermometer makers are primarily located in China and India and have little domestic clout, light bulb and computer makers have so far defeated efforts to reduce mercury use in their products.
Complicating matters, Lee said, is that fluorescent lights are far more energy efficient than standard bulbs, so politicians are hesitant to call for a ban.
“We think light bulb companies need to develop an energy efficient bulb that is less toxic,” Lee said.
Worthington said the city should assist in CALPRIG’s efforts.
“If we can strengthen statewide regulations and explore innovative ways, Berkeley can go beyond the state. We can provide a model for what a city can do,” he said.