University of Rochester

University Takes Action to Reduce Mercury Use

April 24, 1997

The University of Rochester is stepping up efforts to limit the internal use and disposal of mercury, a poisonous metallic element used widely in medical facilities.

Mercury, identified as a pollutant of major concern, is contained in batteries, electrical equipment, reagents, and even certain automobile switches. Because its applications are so broad and varied, prevention is a global issue.

Outside of environmental implications, the economic effects of mercury disposal are quite severe. Mercury amounted to approximately 20 percent of the University's hazardous waste disposal expenses for the last quarter of 1996. The current cost to recycle a 55-gallon drum of mercury-contaminated debris is $3,025, whereas a comparable drum of xylene costs only $60 to dispose.

The University remains in compliance with the levels of mercury allowed in the waste water it produces. This may soon change, however, since an updated, more restrictive New York State program to reduce pollution in the Great Lakes Basin is about to be implemented.

"We need to act together now in order to accomplish lower discharge levels," says Marvin Stillman, manager of environmental compliance in the Hazardous Waste Management Unit. "This will not only help the environment, but by acting now we will meet the new discharge limits prior to the deadline, which will give us operational freedom to meet the challenge in our own way and on our own schedule."

Strong Memorial Hospital and the Hazardous Waste Management Unit have been working with the Monroe County Mercury Pollution Prevention Task Force to find ways to limit or eliminate mercury pollution from health care facilities.

So far, selected areas have been surveyed for mercury use, and a work group is forming to coordinate the effort to reduce or eliminate use of the pollutant. Older policies and procedures relating to mercury will be reviewed and updated, and educational material is being developed for hospital staff. If the effort is a success, the task force will use it in other hospitals and dentists' offices in the Genesee watershed.

Stillman says labs and agencies can take a number of steps to reduce mercury pollution and removal costs:

* Eliminate mercury use completely wherever feasible;

* Substitute non-mercury-containing equipment and products when possible;

* Make sure mercury waste is properly disposed of by the Hazardous Waste Management Unit. Do not pour spills or any solution containing mercury down the drain where it can be transported through the waste water;

* Try not to use mercury in carpeted areas. Broken blood-pressure cuffs in carpeted rooms, for example, can lead to numerous drums of contaminated carpet.

For more information, call the Hazardous Waste Management Unit at x5-2056, or e-mail Marvin Stillman at