Writer: Aaron Hoover
Source: John Schert, (352) 392-6264
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Although a majority follow the
rules, some Florida hospitals could do more to remove
mercury from medical waste or to replace
mercury-containing devices such as traditional
thermometers, a University of Florida study has found.
The yearlong study by UF's Florida Center for Solid
and Hazardous Waste Management also found dentists don't
consistently dispose of mercury properly. Some allow
mercury-containing material from old fillings to escape
into sewer pipes that drain into wastewater treatment
plants, for example.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection
commissioned the roughly $50,000 study as part of
efforts to reduce pollution by the toxic metal
statewide. Medical waste incinerators, solid waste
incinerators and power generating plants are the three
biggest sources of airborne mercury emissions in the
state, DEP officials said.
"We have an agency goal to reduce the amount of
mercury, cadmium and lead in solid waste by 50 percent
by the year 2000," said DEP Environmental
Specialist Jack Price. "This study plugs into an
area where we have some opportunities."
Mercury is a neurotoxin to humans and other animals.
It can cause blindness, deafness and death and is
particularly harmful to children's developing nervous
Released into the environment from incinerators or
fossil fuel power plants in a vaporized form, the metal
is absorbed by small organisms, then changed into a more
toxic, organic form that moves up the food chain. The
result is "bioaccumulation" -- the amount of
mercury increases with each step, so humans and other
carnivores get the biggest doses.
Mercury poisoning is likely a factor in the deaths of
two Florida panthers in the late 1980s and could be
causing behavioral changes in Florida's bald eagle
Meanwhile, government advisories urging fishermen to
limit their fish intake due to mercury contamination are
becoming a familiar sight. Currently, 89 Florida waters
are posted with such advisories, with some warning
people to avoid eating any fish.
Under state and federal regulations,
mercury-containing devices and most mercury-containing
lamps are classified as hazardous wastes, and it is
usually against the law to knowingly dispose of these
wastes in incinerators or landfills.
But the study, which included a detailed survey of 92
of the state's hospitals, found workers at some
hospitals didn't always separate mercury wastes
properly, unintentionally disposing of mercury waste in
medical waste bound for incinerators. Thermometers, for
example, should be placed in hazardous waste containers.
But broken thermometers are sharp, and some workers
reported disposing of them in so called
"sharps" containers used for waste hypodermic
needles. Some hospitals, meanwhile, reported throwing
away materials used to clean up mercury spills in
infectious waste "red bags."
"The results suggest that while the majority of
hospitals in Florida are following the rules and
recommended practices with regard to mercury spills and
mercury-containing devices, compliance is far from
unanimous," the study said.
The chief source of mercury
pollution from dental offices was in the disposal of a
material known as amalgam used for old fillings, the
When old amalgam is drilled out
of a patient's tooth, it is sucked into a vacuum device
and released to sewer pipes. Though drain traps help
reduce the amount of amalgam entering the sewer, they
don't catch all of it, the study found. Dentists visited
as part of the study estimated as much as half of
amalgam was reaching the sewer.
Education is needed to help
dentists' offices and hospitals change disposal
practices, and to encourage hospitals to recycle
mercury-containing items and replace them with
alternatives, said John Schert, director of the College
of Engineering-based Center for Solid and Hazardous
"We need to look at how we can help hospitals on
this issue in terms of what alternatives are out there
for them," he said.
As a result, the center has hired a full-time staffer
to work with hospitals and dentists on mercury-related
issues, Schert said. DEP officials will use information
collected as part of the program to establish
recommended management practices, Price said.
"Hospitals visited as part of the survey were
eager to learn about proper mercury handling procedures,
and we expect these management practices to help guide
them in their efforts to reduce this pollution
problem," Price said.