What is US policy on mercury disposal?

Current official US public advice on the proper disposal of mercury is confused and inconsistent according to recent research, which called for a uniform approach to disposal of all mercury-containing products, at a time when American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) is encouraging the phasing out of mercury-based thermometers.

Researchers found that 45% of the responses to requests for advice from local and state health and waste management centres were recommendations to use their regular household collections to dispose of thermometers. Overall there was no consistent response, which varied between advice to use household collection; take thermometers to a specific hazardous waste site; or call another agency for advice.

The study was initiated following widespread publicity of an AAP report on mercury in the environment and the implications for paediatricians. This led to a rise in public enquiries on disposal at the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, at the University of Medicine and Dentistry. There were some reports that callers had received mixed messages from a number of local officials on the subject. Researchers from the poison centre and the Rutgers University-College of Pharmacy and New Jersey Poison, called 80 different state bodies for the survey. The lack of uniformity of response confirmed anecdotal experience and led the research team to question if there was any consensus in advice being offered to the public.

Under a voluntary agreement between the EPA and American Hospital Association (AHA) called Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E), participants pledge to eliminate mercury, identify pollution prevention opportunities and reduce waste. As of March 29, 2002, the H2E initiative had 253 partners representing 260 hospitals, 36 clinics, 8 nursing homes and 25 other types of facilities across the US.

Advice to householders on the EPA website is to ‘Save for collection’, which, it says, indicates “those products that should be secured and held for a hazardous waste collection day. If you must wait for a collection program, store products safely in their original containers with the labels intact, and out of reach of children and pets. Contact local officials to find out when and where a collection may be held in your area.”

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