Health care is not the greatest source of mercury pollution—that title goes to coal fired power plants and artesanal and small-scale gold mining. However, health care is still a significant source.
In health care settings, mercury may be released from thermometers, blood pressure devices, gastrointestinal and other mercury containing medical products. Fixatives, preservatives, lab chemicals, cleaners and other products may also contain intentionally added mercury which, when discarded to the waste stream, result in environmental contamination. Furthermore, many building products such as thermostats, pressure gauges and switches also contain mercury.
Fortunately, there are safe, cost-effective non-mercury alternatives for nearly all uses of mercury in health care.
Mercury spills in hospitals, clinics and labs expose doctors, nurses, other health care workers and patients to elemental mercury. At room temperature significant amounts of liquid elemental mercury transform to a gas, exposing workers or patients in the area to potentially highly toxic levels.
If discarded as a waste, mercury from health care eventually makes its way into the environment where it methylizes and bio-accumulates in the food supply, negatively impacting human and environmental health.