As part of the New Hampshire Pollution Prevention in Schools Project, the New Hampshire Pollution Prevention Program (NHPPP) has been providing guidance to schools through numerous outreach activities. In 2001, NHPPP hosted a workshop, "Getting Toxics Out of New Hampshire Schools," that provided school administrators, staff and maintenance managers the opportunity to learn more about environmental issues facing schools. NHPPP has assisted schools in chemical cleanouts, and has written guidance on managing chemicals in science laboratories.
One toxic chemical found in many schools is mercury. Recent legislation in New Hampshire is aimed at reducing mercury exposure and releases to the environment. This is being accomplished by prohibiting certain uses of mercury and the sale of some mercury-added products, such as mercury fever thermometers and mercury-containing novelty items. Effective January 1, 2001 , no school in New Hampshire is allowed to use or purchase elemental mercury, mercury compounds, or mercury-added instructional equipment and materials in grades K-12, except measuring devices and thermometers for which no adequate substitutes exist. Though this law does not require the removal of mercury and mercury compounds from schools, it is prudent to safely remove and dispose of these materials, since mercury spills have occurred in New Hampshire schools. Many adequate substitutes exist for devices containing mercury used in schools. To find out more on this topic, call NHPPP at (800) 273-9469, or visit the NHPPP mercury web site.
Health Effects From Exposure to Mercury
Mercury is a persistent and toxic pollutant that accumulates in the environment, in wildlife, and in humans. Mercury is toxic to the nervous system, affecting the brain, spinal cord, kidneys, and liver. Mercury exposure is particularly significant for young children and pregnant women, as mercury inhibits the development of the brain and nervous system. Lowered intelligence, impaired hearing, and poor coordination are some of the effects in children with elevated mercury exposure. Since mercury bioaccumulates in the food chain, the most significant route of exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish. However, breathing vapor from liquid mercury that evaporates into the air through a mercury spill is a significant route of exposure that could occur at a school.
Sources of Mercury in Schools
Elemental mercury, mercury compounds and mercury-containing devices may be found in many different areas throughout a school. In the past, elemental mercury has been a common chemical in school science laboratory experiments. During a recent school chemical cleanout, NHPPP assisted in the safe disposal of over 40 pounds of elemental mercury from the chemistry laboratory. The following table lists examples of areas within a school where elemental mercury, mercury compounds and mercury-containing devices can be located.
- Science Labs
- Elemental Mercury
- Mercury thermometers
- Mercury barometers
- Mercury compounds
- Mercury oxide
- Mercury chloride
- Mercury nitrate
- Mercury sulfate
- Mercury preservatives
- Fluorescent lamps
- Mercury thermostats
- Mercury vapor lamps
- Mercury light switches
- Mercury switches & relays
- Art Room
- Paint (True Vermillion)
- Nurses Office
- Fever Thermometers
- Blood pressure devices
- Home Economics
- Cooking Thermometers
- Batteries (prior to 1996)
Depending on the amount of mercury involved, the cost to remediate a school spill could reach tens of thousands of dollars. In the event of a mercury spill, call the NH Department of Environmental Services (DES), Waste Management Division, Special Investigations Section at 271-3899. If you still have mercury-containing products or devices in your school, you should consider purchasing a mercury spill kit. The DES fact sheet Cleaning Up Household Spills of Elemental Mercury also provides information of proper cleanup procedures in the event of a mercury spill.
How to Dispose of Mercury at Your School
It is important for schools to safely dispose of mercury. When disposing of unwanted mercury-containing products, place the mercury devices in double sealed non-breakable containers. Label the containers " mercury containing devices." Do not dispose of these items in the regular trash.
Many communities hold Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) events. School personnel should check with town coordinators to see if they may bring mercury compounds and mercury-containing devices to these collection days. To obtain a list of upcoming HHW events and instructions on safe handling and disposal, contact the DES HHW Program at 271-2047. If a collection event is not being held in your town, you may contact a mercury recycler or hazardous waste disposal company for proper removal and disposal.
Establish a Mercury-Free Purchasing Policy
By establishing a mercury-free policy at your school, you will lessen the possibility of a mercury spill occurring, and the subsequent release of mercury to the environment. When purchasing new equipment or replacing any mercury-containing devices (mercury switches and relays, mercury thermostat probes and flame sensors), check to make sure that any new items purchased do not contain mercury. If no alternative is available, choose the product containing the least amount of mercury available for that particular device.
Adobe Acrobat Reader format. Download a free reader from Adobe.