Mercury in Schools Education Team
Steve Brachman, Waste Reduction Specialist, University
of Wisconsin - Extension
Benjamen Jones, Project Assistant, University of Wisconsin - Extension
Steve Skavroneck, Environmental Consultant
Al Stenstrup, Environmental Educator, Wisconsin Department of Natural
Mary Thiry, Youth Development Educator, University of Wisconsin - Extension
This project is sponsored by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and the University of Wisconsin - Extension
Why Mercury Education
Mercury is a naturally occurring element
that can cause health and ecological problems when released
to the environment through human activities. Though
a national, and even international issue, the mercury
problem is best understood when studied at the local
level. Use this guide to help your students learn about
the health and environmental concerns associated with
mercury, find out where it is in their school and homes,
and help school officials and family members do something
This curriculum contains background
information on mercury and youth-based activities. To obtain the most
out of the curriculum, teachers should read over the general information
and have the students conduct their mercury I.Q. Teachers do not
need to use all of the activities, they can then proceed to any section,
according to their curriculum needs, and review the scientific information
provided and assign to their students the corresponding activity. However,
it is usually a good idea to do Activity
2, the case study, before
doing any of the Activities 3 through 10. Activities were designed for
High School classes, however many are appropriate for 6th through 8th
Correlations to National Standards
The teaching activities included in
the Mercury In Your School and the Community: A National Issue are interdisciplinary
and have been correlated to the National Science Education Standards,
the Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, and the U.S. Education Standards
for Physical Education and Health Standards.
Only Grade 12 standards were considered.
For the Social Studies and Physical Education and Health Standards the
Content Standard is listed first and refers to what students should know
and be able to do. The Performance Standard is then listed and tells how
students will show they are meeting a standard. For the Science Standards
only the Content Standard is listed. Only direct relationships are listed
and apply only to the main activity the students are involved with.
Social Studies Standards
II. Time, Continuity, & Change
Social studies programs should include
experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view
themselves in and over time, so that the learner can:
c. apply key concepts such as time,
chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain,
analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change
III. People, Places, & Environments
Social Studies programs should include
experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments,
so the learner can:
b. create, interpret, use, and synthesize
information from various representations of the earth, such as maps,
globes, and photographs;
k. propose, compare, and evaluate alternative policies
for the use of land and other resources in communities, regions, nations,
and the world.
Activities 9, 10
VI. Power; Authority, & Goverance
Social studies programs should include
experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change
structures of power, authority, and governance, so that the learner
j. prepare a public policy paper
and present and defend it before an appropriate forum in school and
X. Civic Ideals & Practices
j. participate in activities to
strengthen the "common good" based upon careful evaluation
of possible options for citizen action.
Activities 9, 10
U.S. Education Standards - Physical Education and Health
NPH-H.9-12.1 Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
Students will comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease
- Analyze how behavior can impact
health maintenance and disease prevention. Activity
- Explain the impact of personal
health behaviors on the functioning of body systems. Activity
- Analyze how the environment influences
the health of the community. Activities
- Analyze how public health policies
and government regulations influence health promotion and disease
prevention. Activities 9,
NPH-H.9-12.3 Reducing Health Risks
Students will demonstrate the ability
to practice health-enhancing behaviors and reduce health risks-
- Evaluate a personal health assessment
to determine strategies for health enhancement and risk reduction.
Activities 3, 4
- Analyze the short-term and long-term
consequences of safe, risky and harmful behaviors. Activity
NPH-H.9-12.4 Influences on Health
- Analyze how information from the
community influences health. Activity
NPH-H.9-12.7 Health Advocacy
- Evaluate the effectiveness of
communication methods for accurately expressing health information
and ideas. Activities 9,
- Express information and opinions
about health issues. Activities
- Demonstrate the ability to work
cooperatively when advocating for healthy communities. Activities
Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
As a result of activities in grades
9-12, all students should develop
Content Standard B: Physical Science
As a result of activities in grades
9-12, all students should develop an understanding of
Content Standard C: Life Science
As a result of activities in grades
9-12, all students should develop an understanding of
Content Standard F: Science in
Personal and Social Perspectives
As a result of activities in grades
9-12, all students should develop an understanding of
|Focus On Mercury - General Information
Mercury In Our World
(Excerpted by permission from "Mercury:
Get Mad Now, Not Later," a 1994 fact sheet by the Western Lake Superior
also known as quicksilver because it is a silver-colored liquid at room
temperature, is an element that does not break down. It occurs naturally
and is found in very small amounts in oceans, rocks and soils. It becomes
airborne when rocks erode, volcanoes erupt and soil decomposes. It then
circulates in the atmosphere and is redistributed throughout the environment.
(Click here for a listing of
the unique and interesting properties of mercury.)
Large amounts of mercury also become
airborne when coal, oil or natural gas are burned as fuel or mercury-containing
garbage is incinerated. Once in the air, mercury can fall to the ground
with rain and snow, landing on soils or water bodies, causing contamination.
Lakes and rivers are also contaminated
when there is a direct discharge of mercury-laden industrial waste or
municipal sewage. Once present in these water bodies, mercury accumulates
in fish and may ultimately reach the dinner table.
Although mercury has been a very useful
element, due to its unique properties, it poses a very real health risk-from
direct exposure to mercury, as well as from eating contaminated fish.
We can minimize this risk by reducing our use of mercury-containing products
and properly disposing of mercury-containing waste.
has been used for thousands of years for a wide variety
of purposes. Historical uses, which are no longer prevalent,
include: preparing felt for hats, controlling mildew
in paints, killing weeds as a component of herbicides,
and various medical uses-teething powder, antiseptic
ointments and syphilis treatment. It's toxic effects
on workers in hat factories in the late 1800's led to
the term "mad as a hatter." Mercury is still
used for folk medicine and ceremonial purposes in several
Today, mercury is released to the environment
from many sources. It is used in household and commercial products, as
well as industrial processes. Coal-fired power plants, incinerators, some
manufacturing plants, hospitals, dental offices, schools and even homes
have all been found to release mercury. In the home, mercury can be found
in fluorescent lights, thermostats, thermometers, and even some children's
toys. At school, mercury may be in science and chemistry classrooms, the
nurse's office and electrical systems. School and home mercury audit activities
in this package provide more detailed information on where to find it
and what to do about it.
Mercury Health Issues
Two different forms of mercury are of human health
concern. Elemental mercury, which is most toxic in its gas form, slowly
vaporizes at room temperature and more quickly when heated. Children playing
with elemental mercury can be seriously poisoned by breathing the invisible
vapor from mercury spilled in carpeting, furniture or other surfaces.
Elemental and inorganic mercury can
be transformed into organic mercury by the bacteria in the bottom mud
in water bodies. Unlike elemental mercury, organic mercury (often referred
to as "methylmercury") can be readily absorbed in humans. The
most likely source of methylmercury exposure is eating contaminated fish,
which can result in long-term damage to the kidney, liver and central
nervous system. Young children and developing fetuses are most at risk.
Organic mercury tends to increase up
the food chain, particularly in lakes. The mud at the bottom of a lake
have 100 or 1000 times the amount of mercury than is in the water. Worms
and insects in the mud extract and concentrate the organic mercury. Small
fish that eat these critters further concentrate the mercury in their
bodies. This concentration process, known as "bioaccumulation",
continues as larger fish eat smaller fish until the top predator fish
in the lake may have methylmercury levels in their tissues that are up
to 1,000,000 times the methylmercury level in the water in which they
Most states advise anglers and their families to reduce their consumption
of certain types and sizes of fish either statewide or for individual
water bodies. Certain types of store bought fish also have elevated mercury
levels. The US Food and Drug Administration has issued consumption advisories
relating to mercury for mackerel, swordfish, tilefish, and tuna.
Mercury and Children's Health
The greatest risk of mercury poisoning is for fetuses
and young children because their nervous systems are still developing.
They are four or five times more sensitive to mercury than adults. Damage
occurring before birth or in infancy can cause a child to be late in beginning
to walk and talk, and may cause lifelong learning problems. Unborn children
can be seriously affected even though the methylmercury causes no symptoms
in their mothers.
Mercury Exposure from Cultural and Religious
In the United States, certain Afro-Caribbean and Latin
American traditions, including: Santeria, Palo, voodoo, and Espiritismo
incorporate the use of elemental mercury in folk medicine and religious
practice. Mercury is sold in most botanicas-stores specializing in herbal
remedies and religious items used in these traditions. Its use, normally
in small, enclosed spaces, combined with the fact that small amounts of
mercury can remain for long periods of time, create the potential for
very high direct exposures to individuals. Although these religious traditions
have been well studied by anthropologists and sociologists, and many medical
anthropologists have documented the use of potentially toxic remedies
in folk medicine, little attention has been focused on the health implications
of toxic substances used in religious rituals and spells.
Availability and extent of use
Several surveys have attempted to characterize mercury
use in Latino/a and Afro Caribbean communities. Metallic mercury is available
at botanicas in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, but botanica personnel
often deny having mercury for sale when approached by outsiders to these
religious and cultural traditions. Actions by public health authorities
have driven the mercury trade underground in some locations. In a survey
of New York City botanicas, 93% reported selling elemental mercury (about
one to four capsules per day). A survey of 115 botanicas in 13 cities
in the United States and Puerto Rico found that 99 sold mercury. Another
survey of 203 Caribbean and Latin American adults in the New York City
area found that 44% of Caribbean and 27% of Latin American respondents
reported using mercury.
Mercury is typically sold in capsules that contain,
on average, about 8 or 9 g (0.3 oz.) mercury. The most common method of
use reported by botanica personnel was to carry mercury on the person
in a sealed pouch (49%) or in a pocket (32%) as an amulet; sprinkling
mercury in the home was mentioned by 29%. Proprietors reported that family
members, friends, spiritualists, and card readers recommend mercury to
store patrons to bring luck in love, money, or health and to ward off
evil. A survey of Latin American and Caribbean New York residents found
that burning mercury in a candle, mixing it with perfume, and sprinkling
it in the car were also frequently reported uses. Of 28 New York botanicas
visited during another survey, 13 prescribed sprinkling mercury on the
floor. Mercury poisoning has also been documented in Mexican-American
infants fed mercury as a folk remedy for gastroenteritis. Medical anthropologist
Robert Trotter identified the use of mercury, as well as lead oxides,
for the treatment of empacho, a digestive illness.
As a result of these practices, living spaces may
become contaminated with mercury. Removal of elemental mercury from floorboards
and carpets is difficult, if not completely impractical. These mercury
practices can be a direct source of contamination not only in the users,
but also in their families, people living in adjacent apartments, and
any future residents of the premises. The potential liability to present
and future landlords is significant, because current and prospective homeowners
may raise concerns about health risks related to prior mercury use on
the premises. In addition, much of the mercury used in folk medicine and
religious practice may be disposed of improperly. One survey found that
64% of mercury users in a study reported throwing mercury in the garbage,
27% flushed it down the toilet, and 9% threw it outdoors. Preliminary
interviews with mercury users indicated a lack of knowledge about the
inhalation pathway as the primary route of mercury exposure. People seem
to know that mercury is toxic and avoid touching or eating it in most
cases, but they do not seem to know about how quickly it turns into vapor
(gas form) and the inhalation exposure risks associated with that. Several
local and national education efforts have been undertaken in the past.
Community involvement, outreach, and education
Because botanicas represent a critical link to health
care services in Latino/a and Afro Caribbean communities, it is important
to recognize the role of botanicas in providing culturally congruent health
interventions in their communities. Botanicas are the first place many
turn for general health care services in Latino/a and Caribbean communities;
any public health interventions to reduce mercury exposure must work with
spiritualists, Santeros, and botanica proprietors. Working cooperatively
with botanicas to promote effective substitutes and institute labeling
for mercury is more likely to be effective than an adversarial enforcement
approach that essentially criminalizes cultural practices. Outreach in
Afro-Caribbean and Latino/a communities is a must. Such outreach and education
will be most effective if they are coordinated with an effort to characterize
the ways mercury use and its hazards are understood in the communities,
so that communications can address any gaps in knowledge and provide the
most important information to mercury users.
*Previous information taken from "Assessing Elemental
Mercury Vapor Exposure from Cultural and Religious Practices," by
Donna M. Riley, C. Alison Newby, Tomas O. Leal-Almeraz, Valerie M. Thomas-article
published in Environmental Health Perspectives - Volume 109, Number 8,
July 4, 2001 Posted: 5:51 AM EDT
Thai diners told steer clear of 'toxic' shark fin
BANGKOK, Thailand - The health ministry in Thailand
is urging diners to stay away from shark fin soup following reports that
the increasingly popular delicacy may contain dangerously high levels
On Tuesday a report by environmental pressure group Wild
Aid said shark fins found on sale in Thailand contained levels of the
heavy metal as much as 42 times the level considered safe for human consumption.
Responding to the report, Deputy Public Health Minister Surapong Suebwonglee
told Thai television Wednesday that officials were collecting samples
of the soup from various restaurants and would be conducting tests over
the coming days. He said that until safety tests had been completed diners
should avoid eating the dish. Pressure groups have been calling for a
halt to the growing trade in shark fins across Asia which they say is
cruel, wasteful and having a devastating effect on the shark population.
Shark fin soup has been growing in popularity across East Asia where,
because of its high price, it is considered a prestigious dish to order
at business occasions, weddings and other banquets.
In Hong Kong, a world center for the shark fin trade,
a single bowl of soup can cost more than US$100. To feed this demand environmentalists
say millions of sharks are killed each year for the fin trade, most of
them taken from waters in the Asia-Pacific region. Wild Aid says that
between 1980 and 1997 trade in shark fins more than doubled to 7,000 tons
annually. The majority of the sharks are pulled from the sea, have their
fins hacked off, and are then thrown back into the water where -- unable
to swim without their fins -- they drown. Environmentalists say sharks
perform a vital function at the head of the food chain and dwindling shark
populations will have a serious effect on the marine eco-system.
In conducting its survey Wild Aid said it had tested
samples from 10 fins bought from three dealers in Bangkok's Chinatown.
It said all contained dangerously high levels of mercury and were also
pumped full of as yet unidentified chemicals. The report said that the
need to bulk out fins in this way was a further sign that the shark numbers
were decreasing. News that fins may contain dangerously high levels of
toxins is being seen as adding further weight to environmentalists' campaigns
to stem the trade. Already pressure from such groups had persuaded a number
of Asian airlines to stop serving the soup to their business and first
class passengers, and last year Taiwanese officials vowed to ban dishes
made with shark fins from official banquets. In any case, campaigners
say, the fins contain no nutritional value and have little themselves
in the way of taste. They say that basically what diners are eating is
cartilage, the same material that makes up fingernails or hair.
Even though they are considered a prestigious dish, shark
fin consumption pose threat to consumers and to shark population.
*previous article taken from cnn.com
|What Is Special
Even though mercury looks like something from outer
space, it is a naturally occurring element that can be found on a periodic
table. (Periodic symbol: Hg)
Special or Unique Properties of Mercury
- Only metal that is liquid at room temperature.
- Holds fascination for people of all ages. Special uses in several
- Easily evaporates into the air.
- A blob of mercury sitting on the table will eventually disappear.
The mercury vapors can be extremely dangerous to breathe.
- Very dense, yet fluid. Density = 13.546 g/cm3(Density of water
= 1.00 g/cm3)
- Just a little bit weighs a lot, yet moves around easily. This
is useful in certain medical procedures.
- Good conductor of electricity.
- Used in electrical "tilt" switches and other electrical
- Expands or contracts uniformly with changes in temperature.
- Used in thermometers and thermostats.
- Readily combines (amalgamates) with other metals.
- Dentists use a combination of mercury and silver, called "amalgam,"
which is used to fill cavities in teeth.
- Kills bacteria and fungi.
- Previously used in pesticides, paints and on people to kill
Activity 1 - Mercury I.Q.
Handout to students to test their mercury I.Q.
1. What is mercury?
a. A type of tree found in the rainforest
b. An element on the periodic table (symbol: Hg)
c. A liquid aliens like to put on their hamburgers
2. What is another common name for mercury?
b. Space goo
c. There are no other names for mercury
3. What can mercury be found in?
d. All of the above
4. What animals are most likely to have elevated mercury
levels in tissues?
a. Large fish
c. Birds that live in a rainforest
5. Mercury is used in:
a. Dental fillings for cavities
b. Fluorescent lamps
d. All of the above
6. Mercury is mined today in what countries? (Mark all
7. Some states or local governments have passed bans on
the sales of:
a. Mercury thermostats
b. Mercury thermometers
c. Fluorescent lights
d. All of the above
8. Mercury is the only known metal that is liquid at 72
degrees: True or False
9. Mercury can be very dangerous: True or False
Answer Sheet for activity 1
Mercury Awareness for School Teachers
WHAT IS MERCURY?
Mercury is a silvery liquid metal at room temperature.
Mercury conducts electricity, expands uniformly with temperature and easily
forms alloys with other metals. For these reasons, it is used in many
products found in homes and schools. Mercury is also an element that occurs
naturally in the earth's surface. It does not degrade and is not destroyed
by combustion. Instead, mercury changes into a vapor that can travel long
distances when volatilized. Mercury cycles between soils, the atmosphere
and surface waters. Its toxicity can endanger living organisms and produce
adverse health effects in humans.
WHY IS MERCURY A CONCERN?
There have been many incidents involving mercury spilled
in schools, school buses or school property that cause alarm and require
cleanup. Sometimes mercury comes from inside the school, and sometimes
mercury is brought into the school from the community. Mercury that is
spilled or spread through a school creates an immediate health issue,
and may require expensive cleanup and monitoring.
Spilled mercury can evaporate at room temperature and easily
be inhaled by the room occupants. Spilled mercury can spread long distances
and settle in cracks and porous materials like cloth, carpet or wood,
slowly emitting vapors over a long period of time. Mercury vapor is colorless,
odorless and tasteless. Short-term exposure to a high concentration of
mercury or mercury vapors can lead to nausea, shortness of breath, bronchitis,
migraine headaches, and fatigue. Long-term exposure to mercury can result
in damage to the nervous system, kidneys and liver. Symptoms include tremors,
numbness in the fingers and toes, loss of muscle control, memory loss
and kidney disease. Children, fetuses, and women of childbearing age are
the most at risk for mercury poisoning. Mercury should be handled carefully,
especially around children.
is also a concern in the environment. Improper disposal of mercury-containing
products is one way that mercury is released into the air,land and water.
Mercury easily enters its vapor form, and can travel long distances. Mercury
that reaches lakes, rivers and streams can be converted into methylmercury
by bacteria in the water. Methylmercury builds up in wildlife tissue,
especially in fish. As larger fish eat smaller fish, the mercury concentrates
travels up the food chain. Methylmercury can move up the food chain and
create a risk for people who eat fish.
It does not take a lot of mercury to have negative environmental
consequences. Researchers estimate that if one gram of mercury-one-seventieth
of a teaspoon enters a 20-acre lake every year from the atmosphere, that
minute amount is enough to raise the mercury levels in the fish. Methylmercury
in large fish can be thousands of times greater than levels in the surrounding
Mercury Awareness for School Teachers
WHAT CAN SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS DO TO REDUCE THE PRESENCE
OF MERCURY IN SCHOOLS?
educate students, other teachers and administrators about the health hazards
and environmental fate of mercury; promote proper management and recycling
of mercury and mercury-containing products; eliminate the use of mercury
wherever possible at schools; prevent mercury spills and know what to
do if a spill occurs; promote the use of alternative products that do
not contain mercury; and promote energy efficiency.
LEARN MORE ABOUT MERCURY
Teachers can educate students about mercury by including
it as part of their lesson plans. One of the best resources is the Mercury
in Schools Pollution Prevention project, located at http://www.mercuryinschools.uwex.edu
REDUCE THE USE OF MERCURY AND MERCURY-CONTAINING PRODUCTS
To reduce the presence of mercury at school, you have to
know where to find it. Interestingly, mercury can be found in a lot of
places, some obvious and some you would not expect. You would expect to
find mercury in science classrooms and the laboratory, but you can also
find it throughout the school, in the cafeteria and in the nurse's office.
It is worthwhile for schools to replace mercury-containing equipment or
choose to purchase products that contain less mercury to reduce the long-term
impact on the environment.
Pollution prevention examines the causes of waste and pollution
to figure out the best way to reduce it. Pollution prevention avoids generating
pollution at the source rather than trying to control it afterwards. This
is also called "source reduction." Always reduce waste before
recycling. Avoid products containing mercury if substitutes are available.
Classrooms, facilities and grounds
School classrooms and facilities may have mercury containing thermostats,
thermometers, barometers and silent wall switches. It is simple and economical
to find mercury-free alternatives for these. Approximately 75 percent
of thermostats currently in use contain mercury. Electronic devices are
often excellent alternatives, though many digital devices may have mercury-containing
batteries, so it is best to use devices that allow you to replace the
batteries with batteries free of mercury.
lamps in the gymnasium and parking lot are generally referred to as high
intensity discharge (HID) lamps, and they contain mercury. Even fluorescent
and neon lamps have some mercury. However, greater energy efficiency of
fluorescent lamps reduces the amount of mercury discharged by power plants
generating electricity. There are also low-mercury alternatives that contain
less mercury than older lamps.
Other items that contain mercury include button cell batteries
and old microwave ovens that could be in the school's cafeteria. Newer
microwaves do not contain mercury. Batteries now contain much less mercury,
but the mercury content is still worth considering. Button batteries may
contain up to 25 milligrams of mercury per battery. Some lithium button
batteries may be free of mercury. It is always best to send old lamps
and batteries to a recycling facility.
The janitorial and grounds staff also need to be aware
of the materials they are using. Old latex paint produced before 1992
may contain mercury to act as a fungicide. Pesticides produced before
1994 may also contain mercury. If old mercury containing paints or pesticides
are still at the school, dispose of them properly as hazardous waste.
Newer paints and pesticides do not contain mercury.
other class- rooms, laboratories may have a lot of thermometers, air pressure
gauges, mercury compounds and elemental mercury for use by the students.
Mercury may have been used historically in a school's laboratory, and
the laboratory may still have containers of mercury or mercury compounds
There are several mercury-free thermometers available,
including red alcohol and digital thermometers. Generally, alcohol or
electronic thermometers are sufficiently accurate and readily available.
If mercury is used in experiments, often it is possible to use other chemicals
to illustrate the same chemistry principles, or do microscale experiments
to reduce the amount of materials necessary and reduce the need to have
large quantities of mercury at the school. If mercury is used as part
of the curriculum, make sure to have a mercury spill kit available, and
that staff are trained in its use.
nurse's office may have the most elemental mercury in the school, including
thermometers and blood pressure measuring devices. Blood pressure gauges
or sphygmomanometers may contain several pounds of mercury. Aneroid blood
pressure devices and digital thermometers are available, and are as accurate
as mercury-containing ones. There are also nasal sprays and contact lens
solutions that contain thimerosal, phenylmercuric acetate or phenylmercuric
nitrate. These compounds all have mercury in them, and have mercury free
generation is currently the largest source of mercury emissions in the
United States. Practicing energy conservation by using energy efficient
products and practices reduces the amount of mercury released by power
plants and reduces the amounts of other pollutants released as well. Energy
efficiency also reduces carbon dioxide, sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide
releases, and makes good economic sense.
PROPER MANAGEMENT AND RETIREMENT OF MERCURY-CONTAINING DEVICES
Many mercury-containing products can be recycled. Mercury
metal, thermostats, batteries, thermometers and fluorescent lights are
some products that can and should be safely recycled.
IN CASE OF A SPILL
By being aware of, and by properly maintaining and
replacing mercury products with mercury-free alternatives, the risk of
a mercury spill is greatly reduced. If a spill does occur, it is important
to have a plan to address it. The safest and best way to clean up a mercury
spill is by hiring a licensed professional contractor. When mercury spills
or an item containing mercury breaks, carefully evacuate the area around
the spill and move students to a different room. Mercury and its vapors
are very difficult to remove from clothes, carpet, floors, walls, and
furniture. Keep everyone away from the area to prevent them from inhaling
the mercury, since it can evaporate quickly. Never wear shoes or clothing
that are contaminated with mercury, since it is absorbed in cloth and
easily spread from one place to another. If possible, open windows to
ventilate the spill area to the outdoors. Close the doors and place signs
prohibiting entry on the entrances to the impacted rooms. Contact the
school maintenance personnel to turn off heating, air-conditioning systems
and fans. This will help avoid circulating contaminated air to other rooms.
NEVER clean up a spill with a vacuum cleaner. This contaminates the vacuum
and circulates mercury into the air. Do not use brooms or paintbrushes
to clean up, since mercury will disperse into smaller beads and be harder
*information taken from Ohio EPA, Office of Pollution
2 - Case Study of Mercury Contamination in a
To create an awareness within students that mercury
exposure in schools is occurring and can cause health risks.
Students will demonstrate their understanding of mercury
issues in schools by discussing a news story.
- Article from the Detroit Free Press, "Teacher placed
on paid leave after toxic science experiment"
*Note that state-specific case studies are available by clicking on
your state on the national map on the Mercury in Schools web site at
- Press release from the Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry (ATSDR), "ATSDR and EPA Warn The Public About
Continuing Patterns Of Elemental Mercury Exposure"
Assign the above article and press release to be read
prior to class. Assign different students to lead the discussion of any
or all of the following questions (and/or questions that you develop for
this activity). This involves preparing a brief introduction for the topic
and facilitating discussion of the question among the other students.
- Why should we be concerned about mercury?
- What are some of the symptoms of exposure to mercury?
- Why are young children and fetuses more vulnerable
to mercury exposure than adults?
- What are some of the different ways that we can be
exposed to mercury?
- How does mercury move around in the environment?
- What would you advise your parents to do if they discovered
a broken mercury thermometer in the house?
- What would you do if you
came across a jar of mercury in someone's garbage or in an abandoned
- What dangers are associated with the use of mercury
as folk medicine or for religious practices?
- What are some of the special properties of mercury
that make it different from other materials?
- Do you think there is mercury in this school? Where?
- Do you think there is mercury in your home? Where?
- Why is it so hard to clean up mercury after it has
Article taken from Detroit Free Press:
"Teacher placed on paid leave after toxic science
December 4, 2001 1:56 P.M.
GRAND LEDGE, Mich. (AP) --A
middle school teacher is on paid leave while district officials
investigate why he allowed students to touch mercury during an experiment.
Up to 27 sixth-grade science students at Hayes Middle
School were directly exposed to the toxic liquid metal while doing
a physical science experiment in teacher Paul Cherry's class last
week, district spokesman Steve Krumm told the Lansing State Journal
for a story Tuesday.
Officials in the Eaton County district about 10 miles
west of Lansing became aware of the exposure Friday and brought
in health officials to assess the health risks.
On Monday, Cherry's classroom was blocked off from
use. Superintendent Marsha Wells issued a news release on the incident
but refused to answer specific questions.
Cherry has declined comment.
Three Barry-Eaton District Health Department employees
worked about 16 hours Friday and Saturday to test for mercury and
advise school officials about what to do, said Jim Rutherford, Barry-Eaton
director of the environmental health division.
Health officials also visited the homes of the teacher
and students to make sure the mercury wasn't spread, he said. A
few book bags and clothing items were collected. "All in all,
it's a fairly contained situation," Rutherford said.
There were two bottles containing mercury in the
classroom, each with less than two tablespoons of mercury, Rutherford
"Any amount of mercury can become very harmful
if it is vaporized," he said.
High levels of mercury -- found in old glass thermometers
and fluorescent lights -- can cause kidney failure, central nervous
system damage and even death.
Grand Ledge High School junior Alicia Arritt said
Cherry let her class touch mercury five years ago in a sixth-grade
science class at Grand Ledge's Beagle Middle School.
Cherry held the mercury and told the students then
they could touch it if they wanted to, Alicia said. "He didn't
make it seem dangerous at all," she said. Alicia didn't handle
The district hired Marine Pollution Control, a Detroit-based
environmental health consulting firm, to do the cleanup at Hayes.
Mercury traces were found in the classroom and lockers of five students,
according to the news release. Equipment and furniture are being
replaced in the affected classroom.
Barry-Eaton District Health Department will write
its report on the incident and provide copies for the Michigan Department
of Community Health and Grand Ledge Public Schools, Rutherford said.
By Dec. 31, 2004, Michigan school districts must
remove all instruments containing mercury that are handled by children,
according to recent state law.
"This is great information to go out in the
school system and tell people why we want mercury out of the schools
system," Rutherford said. "It does happen and it will
This can be found online at:
|For more information, contact:
ATSDR Office of Policy and External Affairs
ATSDR and EPA Warn the Public about Continuing Patterns
of Elemental Mercury Exposure
Elemental (or metallic) mercury is a hazardous chemical
that can cause serious health problems. Children (especially very young
children) and fetuses are most vulnerable. The Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Public Health Service,
and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are jointly issuing an alert
to the general public. There is a continuing pattern of elemental mercury
exposure in children and teenagers and in persons using certain folk medicines
or participating in certain ethnic or religious practices.
ATSDR and EPA strongly advise against the use of
uncontained elemental liquid mercury (that is, mercury not properly enclosed
in glass as it is in thermometers) in homes, automobiles, day care centers,
schools, offices, and other public buildings.
It is important for the general public to understand
that either short-term or long-term exposures to elemental mercury can
lead to serious health problems. Human exposure to elemental mercury occurs
primarily from breathing contaminated air. Other forms of mercury can
be absorbed by drinking contaminated water, eating food (usually fish
containing mercury), and from skin contact. At high levels, elemental
mercury can effect the nervous system and may harm the developing fetus.
Other forms of mercury can damage other organs. Even at low levels, elemental
mercury can cause health problems. Elemental mercury exposure can cause
harm before symptoms become evident. Once released into the environment,
mercury is very hard to clean up. If it is left unattended where exposures
can occur, it can have dangerous effects on human health.
Incidents involving Schoolchildren
- In recent years, increasing numbers of elemental mercury
spills and contamination involving schoolchildren have been reported.
- In August 1994, more than 500 students in Belle Glade,
Florida, were contaminated with elemental mercury after three children
found 4 jars (totaling 55 pounds) of mercury in an abandoned van. The
local hazardous waste materials team decontaminated the children (removed
contaminated clothing and washed the elemental mercury from their skin).
More than 20 families had to be evacuated while their homes were decontaminated.
- In November 1994, college students at Florida Atlantic
University in Boca Raton, Florida, removed elemental mercury from one
of the school's laboratories. Students living in the dormitory were
evacuated and housed in a local hotel while the dormitory was decontaminated.
- In June 1996, elemental mercury was taken from a middle
school in St. Joseph, Missouri, and used in and outside of school by
a group of teenagers. Approximately 200 children were tested for mercury
exposure; one child was hospitalized and another five underwent outpatient
treatment to remove the mercury from their systems; 20 other children
had mildly elevated mercury levels. Two homes and a car required extensive
- In October 1996, a high school in Oskaloosa. Kansas
and a convalescent home in Johnson County, Kansas, were contaminated
with elemental mercury; 52 students and an unknown number of residents
of the home were tested. On the basis of ATSDR recommendations, the
school was closed for a week until indoor air levels were safe. A month
later, sampling at the school identified an increase in air mercury
concentrations. ATSDR re-evaluated the school and did additional cleanup.
- In November 1996, ATSDR again assisted state health
officials and EPA in evaluating contamination at a high school and a
home in Dallas, Pennsylvania, near Wilkes-Barre. Four areas in the school
had levels of elemental mercury contamination that required cleanup.
- In March 1997, a middle school student on his way to
school found elemental mercury on the street in front of his home in
Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The student took the mercury to school
and shared it with three to four classmates. Also, in March 1997 a broken
mercury thermometer was discovered after school on the floor of a bathroom
stall in the boys' bathroom. One thermometer was confirmed missing from
the science department's inventory. The school was found to be clear
of contamination with the exception of one science laboratory and the
carpet in a classroom. Two homes required decontamination.
Schoolteachers, particularly science teachers, and administrators
need to be aware of students' interest in mercury, especially elemental
mercury, and take steps to ensure that children are aware of its dangers
and that any mercury kept in school is safely and securely contained.
Incidents involving religious practices
Persons who use elemental mercury in ethnic folk medicine
and for religious practices are at risk. Elemental mercury is sold under
the name "azogue" in stores (sometimes called botanicas), which
specialize in religious items used in Esperitismo (a spiritual belief
system native to Puerto Rico), Santeria (a Cuban-based religion that venerates
both African deities and Catholic saints), and voodoo.
The use of azogue in religious practices is recommended
in some Hispanic communities by family members, spiritualists, card readers,
and santeros. Typically, azogue is carried on one's person in a sealed
pouch prepared by a spiritual leader or sprinkled in the home or automobile.
Some botanica owners suggest mixing it in bath water or perfume and placing
it in devotional candles.
The following are general facts about elemental mercury
and its risks, as well as information about how people can protect themselves
from exposure and resulting health effects.
What is mercury and how is it used?
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment in several
forms. Elemental mercury is the liquid form used in thermometers. Mercury
is also used in other common consumer products such as fluorescent light
bulbs, barometers, medical equipment such as blood pressure measurement
instruments, and mercury switches in children's sneakers that light up.
This alert concentrates on elemental mercury, but hazards are also associated
with other types. Of these, the most common is methylmercury contamination
How could I be exposed to mercury?
In the previously described school-associated cases,
children were unaware of the dangers involved in exposing themselves and
their families to this deadly poison. Adults are also often unaware of
the hazards associated with mercury; some have even brought it home from
work for children to play with. Just one-half teaspoon of mercury spilled
in the home can be dangerous.
Adults using certain folk medicines or participating in
certain religious or ethnic practices may also expose themselves and their
families to elemental mercury's effects. Because elemental mercury vaporizes
into the air at room temperatures, it presents an immediate health risk
to anyone spending a significant amount of time in a room where elemental
mercury is sprinkled or spilled onto the floor, or where opened containers
of elemental mercury are present. Very small amounts of elemental mercury
(for example, a few drops) can raise air concentrations to levels that
may be harmful to health.
How does mercury affect health?
At high levels, elemental mercury can cause effects
on the nervous system and the developing fetus. Other forms of mercury
can damage other organs. Even at low levels, elemental mercury can cause
health problems. Mercury exposure can begin to cause harm before symptoms
become evident. Once symptoms do arise, health problems related to elemental
mercury poisoning can include tremors, changes in vision or hearing, insomnia,
weakness, difficulty with memory, headache, irritability, shyness and
nervousness, and a health condition called acrodynia. Acrodynia, which
results from acute and/or intermediate duration dermal exposures to elemental
mercury, is characterized by itching, swelling, and flushing; pink-colored
palms and soles of the feet; excessive perspiration; rashes; irritability;
fretfulness; sleeplessness; joint pains and weakness. Children exposed
to elemental mercury for long periods may have trouble learning in school.
Exposure to mercury can result in communication and learning disabilities
that may be irreversible. Pregnant women and their fetuses and women of
childbearing age are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of elemental
mercury because it readily passes from the mother to the fetus. Mercury
may accumulate in higher concentrations in the unborn baby than in the
mother. Young children, who often play on the floor where metallic mercury
may have been spilled, are particularly at risk for effects on the central
nervous system. Mercury vapors are readily absorbed into the bloodstream
from the lungs, and the human central nervous system, which is still developing
during the first few years of life, may be damaged.
Health effects can result from short-term or long-term
exposure. The body gets rid of mercury through the urine and feces. Removal
of this substance from the body can take up to several months after exposure.
When mercury levels in the body are extremely high, "chelation"
therapy is necessary. Chelation therapy is an unpleasant treatment that
involves putting a chemical into the bloodstream; the chemical combines
with the mercury to aid in its removal from the body. Prevention is
the key to avoiding poisoning in homes, schools, and families.
What is mercury contamination and how can I prevent
Mercury contamination results from exposure through
the air, water, food, soil, or direct contact. Exposure to elemental mercury
occurs when it is not stored in a closed container. Contamination may
include the spilling of elemental mercury on clothes, furniture, carpet,
floors, walls, the natural environment, and even the human body. Elemental
mercury and its vapors are extremely difficult to remove from such items
as clothes, furniture, carpet, floors, and walls. The vapors will also
accumulate in walls and other structures in contaminated rooms. The contamination
can remain for months or years, posing a risk to exposed individuals.
The use of elemental mercury in a home or apartment not only poses a threat
to persons currently residing in that structure, but also to those who
subsequently occupy that dwelling and are unaware of the past mercury
Avoid using elemental mercury. Appropriate substitutes
are available for nearly all uses of elemental mercury. Therefore, be
sure you need to use it. If substitutes are not available, make arrangements
to safely dispose of whatever elemental mercury you might have by calling
your local poison control center. If you do need to use elemental mercury,
make sure it is safely stored in a leakproof container. Keep it in a secure
space (e.g., a locked closet) so that others cannot easily get it. Use
of elemental mercury in a controlled environment helps to reduce the risk
that contamination will occur.
Can I clean up mercury with a vacuum cleaner?
Never use a vacuum
cleaner. Using a vacuum cleaner causes elemental mercury to vaporize in
the air, creating greater health risks. It also ruins the vacuum cleaner.
Can electronic equipment collect mercury vapors?
Elemental mercury vapors can accumulate in electronic
equipment, especially computers. When the computer is turned on, the mercury
revaporizes. This cycle of elemental mercury collecting and vaporizing
from computers has been seen in several incidents in schools.
Mercury vapors are very dangerous and are virtually undetectable.
Avoid breathing mercury dust, vapor, mist, or gas. Avoid contact with
eyes, skin, and clothing. If you feel you have been exposed directly to
elemental mercury, wash thoroughly after handling. Remove contaminated
clothing and wash before reuse. If someone has breathed in mercury, provide
as much clean air as possible.
What should I do to keep my home safe?
Care must be taken in handling and disposing of all
items in the home that contain elemental mercury. Elemental mercury is
used in a variety of household and industrial items including thermostats,
fluorescent light bulbs, barometers, glass thermometers, and some blood
If a thermometer breaks, remove children from the
area. Clean up the bead of elemental mercury by carefully rolling it onto
a sheet of paper or sucking it up with an eye dropper. After picking up
the mercury, put it into a jar or airtight container. Do not wash it
down the drain or throw it outside. The paper or eye dropper should
also be bagged and disposed of properly according to guidance provided
by environmental officials or your local health department. Try to ventilate
the room to the outside and close off from the rest of the home. Use fans
for a minimum of one hour to speed the ventilation. If larger amounts
of elemental mercury are found (for example, a jar), make sure that the
mercury is in an airtight container and call your local health department
for instructions in how to safety dispose of it. If a larger amount is
spilled, leave the area and contact your local health department and fire
authorities. Do not simply throw it away, but instead seek professional
guidance from environmental officials or your local health department.
Important Telephone Numbers
||? Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry (ATSDR) Emergency Response
? Hotline (24 hours): (404) 639-0615
? National Response Center: 1-800-424-8802
? Superfund Information Hotline: 1-800-424-9346
? You may also call your local health department
Activity 3 - School Mercury
Now it is time to conduct a Hg school audit!!
Schools are places where mercury and children may come
together. They are also places where we can model appropriate health and
environmental protection behaviors. Lastly, schools can also be catalysts
for reducing mercury in homes of their students (and staff.)
- Involve students in a meaningful,
real-life opportunity to do something about an environmental problem
at their school.
- Reduce or eliminate opportunities for students and
staff to come in contact with mercury.
- Prevent the release of mercury into the environment
from mercury or mercury-containing devices at school, by properly disposing
- "Mercury At School: Where To Look And What To Look
For", information about conducting a school mercury audit.
- Copies of Mercury Audit Checklist (one per team)
- Obtain approval from your principal.
- Discuss the audit with your school's engineering and/or
- Introduce the topic of mercury to the class, using
any or all of the materials included in the Focus
on Mercury section of this package.
- Hand out copies of "Mercury at School: Where To
Look And What To Look For" to students and ask them to review it
ahead of time.
- Divide your school or classroom up and assign research
teams to cover specific areas. (Obtaining the building blueprint would
be very helpful but is not necessary.)
- Now have the students develop an audit "plan,"
i.e. what will they look for, who will they talk to, and what will they
ask? They may wish to map the locations of mercury or suspected locations.
- Conduct the audit using the mercury audit form or a
form designed by
- Have students discuss the results with the principal,
science teachers, school nurse, and engineering and/or janitorial staff.
Make recommendations for safely recycling mercury and replacing mercury-containing
products or equipment, as appropriate.
Mercury at School: Where to Look
and What to Look For
Science, Chemistry, Physics and Biology Classrooms
Check for: pure
mercury, mercury compounds, thermometers, barometers, or other devices
that may contain mercury
Why?: Mercury and mercury compounds
were used in various experiments. They may or may not be used now, but
they may still be in the cabinet or chemical closet. Mercury thermometers,
barometers, or other mercury containing devices may be used in science,
chemistry, biology and physics classes.
Alternatives: Other chemicals
can be used in class experiments to illustrate science or chemistry principles.
Alcohol or electronic thermometers are readily available and sufficiently
Who to Talk to: Chemistry and
other science teachers
(1) Are mercury or mercury compounds currently used in class?
(2) If they are being used, could other chemicals replace them?
(3) Do you know if these have been used in the past in science classes
in this school?
(4) Are these being stored in a closet, cabinet or elsewhere
(5) How many mercury thermometers or
other mercury devices are in the classroom?
(6) Have you ever experienced a spill of mercury or a broken thermometer
in your class room?
(7) Is a spill kit readily available, if a spill occurs?
(8) Are you familiar with the proper spill control procedures for mercury?
Possible Actions: Make sure
any mercury, mercury compounds, or thermometers are in non-breakable containers.
These should all be collected by school engineering and/or janitorial
staff, held in a safe, secured area prior to recycling them.
Your school should not wait for mercury thermometers
to break before replacing them with non-mercury alternatives. If a barometer
is to be retained, make sure it is protected by a Plexiglas or similar
enclosure. If mercury thermometers or barometers will not be replaced
at this time, obtain spill kits for the science classrooms and storage
rooms. Make sure that at least several staff people are trained in proper
spill control procedures.
Check for: thermometers,
blood pressure measuring device(sphygmomanometer), nasal spray and contact
Why?: Mercury thermometers are used to check for
fever. Sphygmomanometers can contain up to several pounds of mercury.
Nasal spray and contact lens solution may contain thimerosal (an ingredient
that has mercury in it), phenylmercuric acetate or phenylmercuric nitrate.
Alternatives: Alcohol or electronic thermometers
are readily available.
Aneroid blood pressure devices are just as effective as the mercury versions.
Many brands of nasal spray and contact lens solution do not contain mercury,
however the labels do not always indicate which ones are mercury free.
Who to Talk to: School Nurse
Questions to Ask:
(1) How many mercury thermometers are in the nurse's office?
(2) Have you ever experienced a broken thermometer?
(3) Is a spill kit readily available, if a spill occurs?
(4) Are you familiar with the proper spill control procedures for mercury?
(5) Do you use a sphygmomanometer? If yes, have you considered replacing
it with an aneroid blood pressure device that does not contain mercury?
(6) Do you stock nasal spray or contact lens solution?
If yes, have you contacted the manufacturer to make sure they do not contain
Make sure mercury thermometers are in non-breakable containers.
These should all be collected by school engineering or janitorial staff
and held in a safe, secured area prior to recycling them.
Do not wait for mercury thermometers to break before replacing them with
alcohol or electronic alternatives.
Replace sphygmomanometers with aneroid blood pressure devices.
If mercury thermometers or sphygmomanometers will not be replaced at this
time, obtain a spill kit for the nurse's office. Make sure that the nurse(s)
are trained in proper spill control procedures.
Use up existing stock of nasal spray or contact lens solution containing
mercury and then purchase mercury-free alternatives.
Electrical And Heating Equipment
Check for: thermostats, "silent" light
switches and recycling of fluorescent light bulbs
Why?: Thermostats are used to control the temperature
in buildings. Approximately 75% of thermostats in use today contain mercury.
Many "silent" light switches contain mercury. Each fluorescent
tube in overhead lighting fixtures contains a minute amount of mercury.
However, your school probably uses a large number of these fluorescent
bulbs throughout the building, so the total amount of mercury can be significant.
Alternatives: Electronic thermostats and non-mercury
switches are widely available. Fluorescent bulbs should be recycled, rather
than thrown out.
Who to Talk to: School engineering or janitorial
(1) How many thermostats and "silent" light switches are there
in your school building?
(2) How many of these contain mercury?
(3) How are used fluorescent bulbs managed? Are they recycled
or thrown out in the trash?
(4) If they are recycled, how and where are they stored
before they are taken from the building for recycling? How are they protected
to avoid breaking them?
Place stickers (designed by the students) on any mercury thermostats or
silent switches that indicate:
(1) This device contains mercury.
(2) When this device is disposed of, the mercury should be recycled.
(3) When purchasing a replacement, a mercury-free model should be chosen.
Notify the purchasing department to try to get mercury-free
thermostats or light switches when purchasing replacements. Many HVAC
contractors will recycle mercury thermostats.
Your school should recycle used fluorescent bulbs
by replacing them in their original box in a safe, secure storage area
until they are picked up by a recycling contractor.
Fluorescent & High-Intensity Discharge (HID)
Lamps Contain Mercury?
o fluorescent lamps
o mercury vapor lamps
o metal halide lamps
o high-pressure sodium lamps
o neon lamps
Why Use Fluorescent and HID Lighting?
Fluorescent and HID lighting is an excellent business and environmental
choice because it can use up to 50 percent less electricity than incandescent
lighting. However, used fluorescent and HID lamps must be managed properly
because they contain mercury.
How Do I Dispose of the Lamps?
- Store lamps in an area and in a way that will prevent
them from breaking, such as in boxes the lamps came in or boxes supplied
by lamp recyclers.
- Mark the lamp storage area with the words "Fluorescent
lamps for recycling."
- Do not break or crush lamps because mercury may be
- If lamps are accidentally broken, store them in a sealed
container. Pick up spilled powder and add it to the
- Take lamps to a consolidation site* or arrange
with a lamp transporter to pick them up. Contact your city, county or
state environmental office or solid waste office for services available
in your area. To protect yourself from future liability, save the invoices
that track your used lamps and include the following information:
- the date of shipment
- the number of lamps
- the location from where the lamps are being shipped
- the destination of the shipment
*These services may not be available in your area.
Mercury Audit: Assessment
Checklist for Schools
|Science, Chemistry, Physics, Biology
How Many/ How Much?
|Mercury Vacuum Gauges
|Hg Spectral Tubes
|Mercury Molecular Motion Device
|Mercury Sling Psychrometer
Mercury (II) chloride
Mercury (II) sulfate
|Other Mercury Materials
How Many/ How Much?
|Mercury Fever Thermometers
|Sphygmomanometers (Blood Pressure Devices) - with silver
|Contact lens solution
How Many/ How Much?
Mercury Vapor Lamps, Metal Halide Lamps, High-Pressure Vapor Sodium
|"Silent" Light Switches
|Mercury Float Control Switches (e.g. on Sump Pumps)
|Flow Meters with Mercury Switches
|Other equipment with mercury switches
|Older fungicides and pesticides (prior to 1991)
How Many/ How Much?
|Mercury Cooking Thermometer
|True Vermillion Paint (contains mercuric sulfide)
|Cadmium Vermillion Red
|Mercury Oxide/Mercury Zinc Batteries (old alkaline type,
prior to 1996 and button batteries)
*form attained from newmoa.com at http://www.newmoa.org/Newmoa/htdocs/prevention/mercury/schools/checklist.cfm
The following information illustrates how the average household
contributes to the use and release of mercury to the environment. The
idea is to provide a sense of how our daily activities, as well as devices
and products in our homes, contribute to the overall picture of mercury
release and use.
Charts are provided to show percentages of where mercury
is most likely found in homes, "Presence/Use of Mercury in Households,"
and what contributes most to the release of mercury, "Annual Mercury
Releases from Households." Mercury "releases" are defined
very broadly and include air emissions, discharges to streams, lakes or
sewers, and placement in landfills. The following types of uses or releases
from households have been documented:
- coal combustion to produce electricity
- fluorescent lamps
- gasoline combustion in motor vehicles
- heating oil combustion
- appliance switches (chest freezers, washing machines)
- automotive switches
- dental fillings
- wastewater discharged to sewers
- button batteries
- gas-pilot ranges
- light switches
Adopted from "Mercury Source Sector Assessment
for the Greater Milwaukee Area" by the Pollution Prevention Partnership
and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, 1997
Activity 4 -
Hunt for Mercury At Home
Students will expand their school efforts by looking
at where mercury occurs in their homes.
- Involve students in a meaningful, real-life opportunity
to do something about an environmental problem at home.
- Reduce or eliminate opportunities for students and
their families to come in contact with mercury.
- Prevent the release of mercury into the environment
from mercury or mercury-containing devices at home.
- Students will be able to analyze and then determine
the level of threat of mercury in their home
- If appropriate, get the permission of your principal
and then inform your parent organization
- Introduce the topic of mercury to the class, using
any or all of the materials included in the Focus on Mercury section
of this package (pages 1-11). Consider doing one or more of the other
mercury related activities first.
- Try to find out the local contacts for household hazardous
waste collection and add these to the bottom of the third page of "Hunt
for Mercury at Home." The sewage treatment plant or Dept. of Public
Works are good places to find out if there is a household hazardous
waste collection program in your area.
- Hand out copies of "Hunt for Mercury at Home"
to students and allow them 3-7 days to complete the exercise.
- Have the students develop their own or use the sample
letter provided to send home to each family
- Make sure that students understand that they need to
discuss this activity with their families before they do it and that
it works best if they get help from family members.
- Have students compare their results
and discuss safe ways of addressing the mercury in their homes.
Sample Letter to Parent
One topic being covered at school is mercury. Mercury is an element that
occurs naturally in the earth's surface. It can be found in many household
products, and products at school. Mercury presents an environmental threat
because it can accumulate in animals and people, and can be toxic. Its
toxicity can endanger living organisms and can produce adverse health
effects in people, such as headache, weakness, memory loss, and nervousness
among others. Mercury poisoning is possible just by breathing mercury
vapors, which are invisible.
There are many efforts across the nation to educate people
about mercury, its risks, and how to dispose of it. Mercury can be found
in common household items such as thermometers, thermostats, fluorescent
lamps, and certain types of appliance switches. An important thing to
know is that the primary concern about many of these mercury-containing
products is when you dispose of them, and not by just having them in your
home. Most are harmless unless broken or disposed of improperly. You do
not need to throw out all the mercury-containing products that you find.
Any device that contains mercury needs to be recycled properly and cannot
be thrown in the trash. Try to find a household hazardous waste collection,
or contact the sewage treatment plant or Dept. of Public Works. When it
is time to replace a mercury-containing product, use a mercury-free alternative.
There are safe, dependable, and easy to use alternatives for all mercury-containing
devices used in your home.
At School, your child has studied mercury and its impacts on human health
and the environment, and has been given an information packet entitled,
"Hunt for Mercury at Home," along with an "Inventory Results"
sheet. Please go through this with your child and fill out the "Inventory
Results" sheet. Do not be alarmed if you come up with many objects
in your home that contain mercury. The purpose of this is to make you
aware of them, and what to do with them, and when it comes time to replace
them, remember buying smart is a great way to prevent pollution.
Hunt For Mercury At Home
Information and Checklist to Help You Inventory
the Mercury in Your Home, Learn about Safe Disposal Options and Mercury-Free
This guide provides a list of what to look for, what to
do about mercury-containing products if you find them and what mercury-free
substitutes are available.
Before getting started, share information about mercury
with your family and let them know why you are searching for it in your
home. Family members may be able to help you identify products that contain
mercury and help you decide what to do about them.
Remember, the primary concern about many of these mercury-containing
products is when you dispose of them, and not necessarily contact with
them in your home. You do not need to throw out all the mercury-containing
products that you find.
A good example is thermostats. Many of you will find thermostats
with mercury in your homes. These are designed to last a long time and
are not a hazard to you and your family unless they break and spill the
mercury. The best approach is to let your parents know that different
types of thermostats are available and, if they replace the one they have
now, they should install a mercury-free thermostat and properly recycle
the old one.
This guide provides advice for what to do about each of
the mercury-containing products that you may find in your home. Make sure
to consider common sense, recycling, safety and pollution prevention before
taking action. You can also use this guide to help you and your family
buy products that do not contain mercury. If you are careful about not
buying mercury-containing thermometers, toys, thermostats, etc., you won't
have to worry about mercury in your home in the future. Buying smart is
a great way to prevent pollution!
Hunt For Mercury At Home
What To Do
||Silver liquid in tube
||Bring to Household Hazardous Waste Facility.
||Alcohol or digital thermometer
||All non-electronic models
||When it needs replacing, recycle.
||Electronic "set back" models can help save on energy bills.
||Light bulbs in the form of long or curved tubes
||Continue to use these, however, recycle them at the Household Hazardous
||None, although some newer bulbs have less mercury than others.
|Old Alkaline Batteries
||Bought before 1990. Check expiration date
||Bring to Household Hazardous Waste Facility.
||An old time antiseptic for cuts and scrapes
||Bring to Household Hazardous Waste Facility
||New antiseptics do not contain mercury.
||Contain blob of mercury.
||Bring to Household Hazardous Waste Facility
|Shoes that Light Up or Make Noise
||Bought between 1991 and 1994
||Bring to Household Hazardous Waste Facility.
||Sneakers that don't light up
||May contain mercury compounds
||Bring mercury or mercury compounds to Household Hazardous Waste
||Other mercury-free toys
|Vials or Jars of Mercury, Sometimes on Necklaces
||Small containers of mercury used for ceremonial purposes. May be
found in basements or garages
||Bring to Household Hazardous Waste Facility.
Nearest Household Hazardous Waste Collection Facility:
Person to call to find out about Household Hazardous Waste
Collection in your community:
Hunt For Mercury At Home
Some fever thermometers contain mercury and should not
be thrown in the trash. A typical fever thermometer contains about 0.5
grams of mercury.
Many thermometers used to measure air and water temperature
also contain mercury, and they are used by homeowners, businesses, institutions,
and anglers. When these thermometers break outdoors, the mercury from
them is difficult to capture.
Alcohol or digital thermometers are as accurate as mercury thermometers
for most applications. Since they are mercury-free, no mercury will
be released if they break or when they are thrown away. Digital thermometers
last longer because they do not break. Consequently, they cost less
in the long run.
Change to alcohol or digital thermometers whenever
feasible. In the meantime, save old or broken mercury thermometers
in a closed container. If a thermometer breaks, pick up all the
mercury you can and add it to the container. Use two pieces of paper
or two razor blades to scoop it up from a smooth surface. Use an eyedropper
to pick up pieces of mercury from the floor or the ground. Mercury
spill kits are available from safety equipment supply companies
for larger mercury spills.
Homeowners can use local household hazardous waste collection
programs* for broken thermometers.
Mercury-containing tilt switches have been used in thermostats
for more than 40 years. They provide accurate and reliable temperature
control, require little or no maintenance, and do not require a power
source. However, each switch contains approximately 3 grams of mercury.
Mercury-free thermostats are available. Electronic thermostats
for example, provide many of the same features as mercury thermostats
and can be programmed to lower room temperatures at pre-set times. This
results in fuel cost savings and environmental benefits from burning less
Contact your heating, ventilating, and air conditioning
(HVAC) wholesaler. Thermostat manufacturers provide a special container
for thermostats to each participating HVAC wholesaler. DO NOT REMOVE
THE SWITCHES FROM YOUR THERMOSTATS. The wholesaler consolidates thermostats
from heating contractors and mails them intact to the manufacture.
*These services may not be available in your area.
Hunt For Mercury At Home - Inventory Results
||To what degree is the item found a threat?
||Actions that were taken or
will be taken
|An immediate threat (i.e. Liquid mercury)
||Potentially a threat (i.e. breaking a
||A threat when discarded (Fluorescent bulbs)
Mercury in Fluorescent Lights and the
The Use of Mercury in Efficient Electric Lamps - An
Due to the heightened concern about mercury build-up
in the environment, there have been several recent legislative or regulatory
actions targeted at all mercury-containing products. The general objective
is to reduce or remove the mercury content of products.
All efficient fluorescent lamps contain mercury. Fundamentally,
these lamps are a discharge in mercury vapor. When excited, the mercury
vapor discharge is an extremely efficient source of ultraviolet radiation;
this is converted to visible light by the phosphor powder that coats the
interior walls of the lamp.
For the high-pressure sodium and metal halide lamps,
mercury is used to initiate and maintain the discharge. Once started,
the light output generated by the sodium, or by the metal halides, dominates
Mercury-free fluorescent discharges are available
using Xenon. The efficiency is approximately 30% of a normal mercury-based
fluorescent lamp, and therefore this technology is environmentally counterproductive
for general lighting applications. Despite continuous research
by the private sector, government research labs, and academia, no viable
replacement has been discovered for mercury in general purpose fluorescent
lamps. The search continues. There are better prospects for mercury-free
HID lamps, whereas metal halide lamps without mercury present a greater
challenge. The high-pressure sulfur lamp is fundamentally mercury-free,
but is unstable and requires forced cooling.
The EPA mercury report to the U.S. Congress in 1997
identified combustion sources (coal-fired utilities, waste incineration
and boilers) as the three major sources of manmade mercury emissions in
the U.S. Together they represent 87% of the total. By contrast, lamp disposal
represented <1% each for lamp breakage and lamp recycling. It is ironic
that the use of efficient mercury containing lamps is the number one choice
for reducing power demand and thereby influencing utility emissions. Lamp
disposal by incineration with other municipal wastes is a relatively recent
phenomenon in some states. This represents the riskiest form of disposal
with <90% mercury emission into the atmosphere where no controls exist
on the incinerator. Recycling of large quantities of lamps, where they
are shipped intact to the recycling location, represents one of the lowest
environmental emissions and the least legal liability arising from the
U.S. Superfund (CERCLA) legislation.
* information taken from OSRAM SYLVANIA's website,
the North American division of OSRAM GmbH
5 - Trade-offs
One way to reduce mercury pollution from coal burning
electrical plants is to use less electricity. Fluorescent light bulbs
use much less energy than incandescent light bulbs, but most fluorescent
bulbs contain tiny amounts of mercury. What makes sense ecologically?
- Evaluate the pros and cons of two alternative technologies.
- Learn how to organize data and determine the mathematical
relationships needed to solve a problem.
- Coherently present the results of calculations to support
a recommended choice or alternative.
- Handout entitled "Trade-Offs: Your Lights, Your
Environment and your Checkbook"
- Trade-offs: Question sheet and Answer sheet
- This activity can be done as homework, or as an individual
or group assignment
- Make copies and distribute "Trade-Offs: Your Lights,
Your Environment and Your Checkbook," and the "Questions"
sheet to the students and ask them to prepare answers and justifications
for all questions
"Trade-Offs: Your Lights, Your Environment and
Incandescent vs. Compact Fluorescent Bulbs- Energy Use, Mercury Emissions
The largest source of mercury to the environment is coal-burning
electric power plants. There is a very small amount of mercury in the
coal that is burned to produce electricity. However, because vast amounts
of coal are burned, the amount of mercury released up the smoke stacks
is very significant.
One of the largest uses of the electricity produced by
these power plants is for lighting homes, buildings and streets. Can the
choice of light bulbs in our homes make a difference in terms of the amount
of electricity used, the amount of mercury released and the amount that
we pay for electricity? Let's figure it out.
||Compact Fluorescent Bulb
||$1.79 for 4 bulbs
Cost of electricity from the power plant-$0.07
Pounds of mercury released per kilowatt-hour of energy used = 3.69E-08
Keep in Mind-
1 kilowatt =1,000 watts
A lumen is a measure of brightness
A kilowatt-hour is a measure of total energy used over a period of time
1 pound = 454 grams
It takes 10 Incandescent bulbs to last as long as 1 compact fluorescent
Equations to Use:
1. Efficiency = light output / energy requirement
2. Amount of mercury released = hours of use x energy requirement
x pounds of mercury released per kilowatt-hour of energy x 454 grams/pound
of mercury / 1000 watts/kilowatt
3. Electricity cost = Hours of use x energy requirement x cost of electricity
/ 1000 watts/kilowatt
1. Which type of light bulb - incandescent or compact
fluorescent - is more efficient? Why?
2. After 10,000 hours of use, how much mercury (in grams) is released
to the environment due to use of each of these two types of light bulbs?
3. After 10,000 hours of use, what are the total costs, including purchase
price and electricity, for each type of light bulb?
4. Which type of bulb would you recommend? Why?
5. Make an educated guess as to how many light bulbs
are in use in your community. Based on this estimate, design a study to
determine the differences in cost and in mercury released if all those
bulbs were either incandescent or compact fluorescent.
Which type of light bulb - incandescent or compact
fluorescent - is more efficient? Why?
Efficiency, in this case, is measured by light output per amount of energy
used. For the compact fluorescent bulb, this is 925 lumens/15 watts =
61.67. For the incandescent bulb, this is 870 lumens/60 watts = 14.5.
Thus, the fluorescent bulb is 4.25 times more efficient.
After 10,000 hours of use, how much mercury is released
to the environment due to use of each of these two types of bulbs?
The amount of mercury released due to use of the compact fluorescent bulb
10,000 hours X 15 watts X .0000000369 pounds per kilowatt-hour X 454 grams
per pound ¸ 1,000 watts per kilowatt = .0025 grams. The equation
for the incandescent bulb is the same, except that 60 watts is substituted
for 15 watts. Thus, the amount of mercury released is 4 times greater
for the incandescent bulb, or .01 grams.
After 10,000 hours of use, what are the total
costs, including purchase price and electricity, for each type of light
Compact fluorescent - $13.99
Incandescent - $1.79/4 X 10,000/1,000 = $4.48
10,000 hours X 15 watts X $.07 per kilowatt-hour ¸ 1,000
watts per kilowatt = $10.50
10,000 hours X 60 watts X $.07 per kilowatt-hour ¸ 1,000
watts per kilowatt = $42.00
$13.99 (purchase) + $10.50 (electricity) = $24.49
$4.48 (purchase) + $42.00 (electricity) = $46.48
Thus, the incandescent bulb is 90% more expensive.
Which type of bulb would you recommend?
Consider efficiency (compact fluorescent is 4.25 times more efficient),
amount of mercury released (4 times less for compact fluorescent) and
total cost (90% less for compact fluorescent).
Study design to determine the differences in cost and in
mercury released for the community if all those bulbs were either incandescent
or compact fluorescent.
The study design should include identification of the following
- estimates of the number of bulbs used in lighting homes,
streets and businesses
- assumptions about the frequency of bulb replacement
- determination of the total amount of energy
- application of the mercury released per kilowatt factor
to determine total mercury releases
- determination of purchase and electricity costs
in the Environment
In this section, you will learn about the behavior
of mercury in the environment and why, in addition to human health concerns
relating to direct exposure, mercury is an important environmental issue.
Much of the material in this lesson is from the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's mercury web site.
Mercury is a silvery, liquid metal at room temperature
and is often referred to as one of the "heavy metals." Like
water, mercury can evaporate and become airborne. Because it is an element,
mercury does not break down into less toxic substances. Once mercury escapes
to the environment, it circulates in and out of the atmosphere until it
ends up in the bottoms of lakes and oceans. Mercury can be found as the
elemental metal or in a wide variety of organic and inorganic compounds.
Depending on its chemical form, mercury may travel long distances before
it falls to earth with precipitation or dust.
Bacteria and chemical reactions in lakes and wetlands can
change the mercury into a much more toxic form known as methylmercury.
Fish become contaminated with methylmercury by eating food (plankton and
smaller fish), which has absorbed methylmercury.
As long as the fish continue to be exposed to mercury,
mercury continually builds up in fish's bodies. Fish that eat other
fish become even more highly contaminated. Thus, the largest tend to
be the most contaminated.
When people eat the contaminated fish, the
methylmercury can remain in their bodies for a long time. If they
eat fish containing methylmercury faster than their bodies can get discharge
it, the methylmercury accumulates in their bodies and can be toxic.
Many states have fish consumption advisories to inform people about
how many meals of fish they can safely eat over a period of time.
Where Does Mercury Come From?
Mercury is a naturally occurring element. Mercury
ore - cinnabar - is mined in Spain, Algeria, Kyrgyzstan and China. Mercury
is also a by-product of gold and zinc mining. Mercury enters the environment
- Natural sources such as volcanoes and the weathering
- Our intentional uses of mercury;
- Our unintentional releases of mercury from burning
fossil fuels and smelting metals.
1994-95 U.S. Mercury Emissions
(Taken from data in the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's Mercury Study Report to Congress, 1997. )
Mercury's Environmental Effects
Fish are the main source of food for many birds and
other animals, and mercury can seriously damage the health of these species.
Loons, eagles, panthers, otters, mink, kingfishers and ospreys naturally
eat large quantities of fish. Because these predators rely on speed and
coordination to obtain food, mercury may be particularly hazardous to
Recent research in Minnesota indicates that the following
environmental effects are occurring:
- Loons are accumulating so much mercury that it may be
affecting their ability to reproduce;
- Elevated levels of mercury have been found in mink and
- Walleye reproduction may be impaired by the fish's exposure
Similar effects are being documented for other fish
and fish-eating species around the United States and Canada. Has there
always been mercury contamination, or is this a recent problem? This is
a difficult question to answer, in part because of a lack of adequately
preserved fish specimens of preindustrial age to compare against contemporary
samples. However, several lines of evidence from recent studies on Wisconsin
lakes suggest that increased emissions to the atmosphere, and subsequent
higher deposition rates to lakes, likely translate into higher mercury
levels in fish.
The Mercury Cycle and Bioaccumulation
There is a constant biogeochemical cycle of mercury.
This cycle includes:
- release of elemental mercury as a gas from the rocks
and waters (degassing);
- long-range transport of the gases in the atmosphere;
- wet and dry deposition upon land and surface water;
- absorption onto sediment particles;
- bioaccumulation (or biomagnification) in terrestrial
and aquatic food chains.
Bioaccumulation means an increase in the concentration
of a chemical in an organism over time, compared to the chemical's concentration
in the environment. Bioaccumulation can be a normal and essential process
for the growth of any species, but the accumulation of unnecessary chemicals
or toxins, or even the overaccumulation of essential substances can be
detrimental. All animals, including humans, daily bioaccumulate many vital
nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, and K, trace minerals, essential fats
and amino acids, but unfortunately, they can also accumulate many unnecessary
substances, such as lead or mercury. What concerns toxicologists is the
bioaccumulation of necessary substances to levels in the body that can
cause harm. With substances such as lead or mercury, any accumulation
at all can be harmful. Compounds accumulate in living things any time
they are taken up and stored faster than they are broken down (metabolized)
Understanding the dynamic process of bioaccumulation is important in protecting
humans and other organisms from the adverse effects of chemical exposure,
and it has become a critical consideration in the regulation of chemicals.
Bioaccumulation varies among individual organisms
as well as among species. Large, fat, long-lived individuals or species
with low rates of metabolism or excretion of a chemical will bioaccumulate
more than small, thin, short-lived organisms. Thus, an old lake trout
may bioaccumulate much more than a young bluegill in the same lake.
Above is a schematic drawing of mercury cycling
in an aquatic ecosystem. With the exception of isolated cases of known
point sources, the source of most mercury to most aquatic ecosystems is
deposition from the atmosphere, primarily associated with rainfall.
the aquatic environment, mercury can be:
- dissolved or suspended in the water
- trapped in the sediments
- ingested by living things (biota)
Methylmercury is the form of mercury most available
and most toxic to biota (including zooplankton, insects, fish, and humans).
This form of mercury is easily taken up by biota and bioaccumulates in
their tissues. Unlike many other fish contaminants, such as PCBs, dioxin,
and DDT, mercury does not concentrate in the fat, but in the muscle tissue.
Thus, there is no simple way to remove mercury-contaminated portions from
fish that is to be eaten.
in the Environment
Activity 6 - Mercury in the
This activity will help the students reinforce their
understanding of food webs while gaining a new understanding of bioaccumulation.
1) Display a graphic understanding of an aquatic food web for a specific
local body of water
2) Demonstrate an understanding of bioaccumulation
- A map of your state showing waterways (a state highway
map will usually work), paper and something to draw with
- Copies of "Example
from Florida aquatic food web and mercury cycle" and information
provided in Mercury in the Environment section of this curriculum package
- If you choose the teacher lead option
you will need the following materials
- 10 very small (1-2 oz.) cups (clear containers are
the best, but use what you have).
- 5 small containers (4 -5 oz)
- 3 medium containers (around 8 oz)
- 1 clear container (large to hold around 7-8 cups)
- Glitter (3 colors) or small beads (3 colors) or
something similar that is very small and can be found in 3 distinct
1. Select a body of water or a number of water systems
in your state.
2. Divide the class into study groups. Assign each group a lake, river,
bay, coastal area, etc. Each group should then create a food web for their
study site. Include as many of the components that they can find (Use
the Florida example as an idea sheet)
3. Select either student self-discovery or teacher lead and follow accordingly.
4. Students should share their findings.
Select one of the two options
Two options: (student self-discovery or teacher lead).
Student self-discovery - present each group
the following scenario - the water they are in charge of has shown signs
of mercury contamination. As scientists they are to demonstrate to the
public what "bioaccumulation" is and why we have to be concerned
1. Allow them to use a variety of materials
2. Give each group 5 minutes for their demonstration.
3. If you wish you may want to have a town board set up to judge who
did the best job of demonstrating the issue.
You will need to gather the following materials: (clear containers are
the best, but use what you have).
- 10 very small (1-2 oz.)
- 5 small containers (4 -5 oz)
- 3 medium containers (around 8 oz)
- 1 clear container (large to hold around 7-8 cups)
- Glitter (3 colors) or small beads (3 colors) or something
similar that is very small and can be found in 3 distinct colors.
1. Fill each container to 1/3 full with water.
2. Now, representing mercury, you will put a pinch of one color of glitter
in each of the 10 very small (1-2 oz.), another color in the 5 small containers
(4 -5 oz), and the third color in the 3 medium containers (8 oz)
Using one of the food chains the students developed, have
the students label the 10 very small ones as the micro-organisms, the
5 small ones as the animal that eats the micro-organisms (small fish,
insects, etc.), the medium would be the animal that eats the small ones
and the clear container will represent a top predator.
Now have the students help you with the demonstration and
put the food chain and bioaccumulation into action. First the 10 very
small containers (they are being eaten by the primary consumer) are poured
into the small containers. Some of the glitter may stay in the each container
as you pour. That is OK, it represents the mercury that is excreted by
the animal (not 100% of the mercury accumulates). Now the small containers
will be eaten by the medium or secondary consumer. And finally the medium
are eaten by the top predator (tertiary consumer).
Discuss what just happened with special emphasis on the glitter. How much
of the mercury was accumulated by the top predator.
Regardless of whether you did the student self-discovery
or the teacher lead one - Now hand out the: Bioaccumulation
in humans chart and discuss what they have learned through the activity.
Example from Florida
aquatic food web and mercury cycle
Bioaccumulation in humans
in the Environment
Activity 7 - Atmospheric Mercury
The majority of mercury entering lakes, streams, rivers,
and oceans comes from the atmosphere. It is important to understand why
mercury is in the atmosphere because once we understand the causes, we
can concentrate on controlling the sources. In this activity, students
will begin to recognize patterns and make educated guesses based on those
1. Students will demonstrate critical thinking skills
2. Students will make educated guesses (scientific inquiry) based on patterns
shown in data
- This activity is based on critical thinking and
the development of the thought process; therefore it is crucial that
the different parts are given one at a time, in the prescribed order.
The Activity can be done individually, in small groups, or as a large
group in a discussion format.
- Hand-out the Mercury Sources Factsheet and the
Where is Mercury? sheet. Have students review data and complete the
- Once the first assignment is complete, hand out
Mercury in the Air. They will need their first assignment to complete
- Once the second assignment is complete, hand
out the third, Fish Advisories. They will need the first and second
to complete the third.
5. Review and discuss the EPA Fact Sheet (which
can be found at the end of this Activity)
Mercury Sources Factsheet
Coal Plants are Largest Mercury Source
The majority of the mercury entering lakes, streams, rivers,
and oceans comes from the atmosphere. Air deposition accounts for up to
90% of the mercury entering Lake Superior, and 80% entering the Delaware
- 85% of mercury emissions come from smokestacks, primarily
power plants and municipal and medical waste incinerators
- 33% of all mercury emissions come from power plants
(coal- and oil-fired), the largest unregulated source, emitting 52 tons
How Far does Mercury Travel in the Atmosphere?
EPA estimates 7 to 45% of mercury released from incinerators
and power plants is deposited within a 30-mile radius. The stack height
at each plant, the chemical species of the mercury, and the amount of
rainfall at a given site all affect how much mercury is deposited around
the plant. As shown in the table below, power plants with shorter stacks
will have more local deposition than those with taller stacks, and more
mercury is deposited locally in a humid site compared to an arid site.
The Electric Power Research Institute calculates that up
to 10% of the mercury released deposits within 62 miles of a power plant,
and the rest is transported regionally and globally.
- Where is Mercury?
Which state(s) do you think have the biggest problem with
atmospheric mercury (mercury that travels through the air)?
Keep in mind:
- Areas of large populations of people using electrical
- General wind patterns travel from west to east
Highlight on map where you think the biggest atmospheric
mercury problem would be and explain why.
Activity 7 - Mercury in the
How does this map compare to your highlighted map on the
previous page? List similarities and differences.
How would you explain the pattern shown on this map?
(What are the similarities and differences?)
After review of this map would you be more concerned about
mercury if you lived in New York, Texas, or California? Does this mean
the other two (that you didn't pick) do not have to worry about mercury?
Activity 7 - Fish Advisories
How does the National Atmospheric Hg Deposition map relate
to this map?
(Are there similarities or patterns between the two?)
Why would a state like New Mexico (NM), that does not show
any atmospheric mercury deposition, have as high or higher amounts of
fish advisories than a state that is in the middle of the heavy atmospheric
deposition (such as West Virginia, WV)?
concerning differences in fish advisories and atmospheric deposition in
New Mexico and West Virginia
The following information shows that even though West Virginia
is in the area of much higher mercury deposition, New Mexico has been
able to do more extensive research and is taking a more preventative stand
than most states.
Excerpt taken from a release from the West Virginia
Bureau for Public Health:
The West Virginia Bureau for Public Health (BPH) encourages
anglers and consumers to take notice of advisory notifications issued
warning pregnant women, women of child bearing age, nursing mothers and
children about the health concerns of consuming fish that may be contaminated
with mercury. The warnings were issued by the United States Environmental
Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
This action is being taken based on an assessment by U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of data collected nationwide. The
agencies in West Virginia that develop fish consumption advisories, the
Bureau for Public Health, Division of Natural Resources and Department
of Environmental Protection, agree that limited data currently available
in West Virginia support this recommendation, however, additional fish
sampling is required to determine more specifically the extent, level
of contamination and species affected by mercury.
A short summary of New Mexico's efforts:
(taken from New Mexico Environment Department)
Atmospheric deposition of mercury
With the exception of localized mineral deposits and certain industrial
settings, the greatest source of mercury to the environment is atmospheric
deposition. Even though the concentration in the atmosphere is very low,
our watersheds provide large catchments, and mercury is carried by runoff
into waterways on fine particles of soil. These particles, easily held
in suspension by the force of moving water, are eventually trapped behind
dams, where they settle into the poorly oxygenated region at the bottom
of the reservoir. In the anoxic sediments and hypolimnetic waters above
them, sulfate reducing bacteria combine some of the inorganic mercury
with methane, forming the methylmercury that biomagnifies so powerfully
as it is concentrated and passed from prey to predator up the food chain.
Because mercury has been found in some fish at concentrations
which could lead to significant adverse human health effects, specific
guidelines have been prepared. These guidelines allow those who fish and
their families to make an informed decision as to what fish they can safely
eat. While the occasional consumer of fish from these waters is at little
risk if they are otherwise in good health, ingestion of mercury at levels
found in some fish over a long period of time could result in health problems
such as kidney disease and/or eye, respiratory tract, nervous system or
How did we first discover the problem?
Some routine spot-checking by the federal government first found the problem.
We verified it, and continued testing other lakes in New Mexico.
Have enough fish been tested to be really sure of the
level of mercury contamination?
Yes, for the lakes for which we have issued health advisories. Mercury
levels are strongly correlated with the length of the fish because longer
fish are older and have had more time to accumulate mercury. Thus only
four fish of different lengths from each species in a lake need to be
tested in order to predict with great accuracy the levels of mercury in
all the fish. However, we are testing more fish than this in order to
verify our statistical models.
Where is the mercury in the fish coming from?
We don't know for sure, but we have not found any single source for it
here in Now Mexico so far. Studies in other areas of the U.S. and the
world have found that most of the mercury appears to be coming from the
air and then deposits in lakes and on soil. The mercury gets into the
air from industrial processes including smelters.
Another possibility is that mercury can be found naturally in different
types of soils, and become washed into lakes with soil disturbances such
as overgrazing, housing developments, road developments, etc.
Why would some lakes have a problem and others not?
The factors which affect the amount of mercury which gets into the fish
are not fully understood. However, some of them appear to be:
1. More acid lakes lead to more conversion of mercury to methylmercury,
taken up by the fish more easily.
2. Recently formed lakes, especially those with submerged decaying vegetation
as trees, are more likely to convert mercury to methylmercury.
3. Smaller lakes may have the mercury more concentrated.
4. Rivers with swiftly moving water will usually have less concentrated
5. Bigger fish, and species of fish which eat other fish, get larger amounts
State/EPA mercury screening survey
In 1995 and 1996, staff of the Surface Water Quality Bureau (SWQB) conducted
a screening survey for mercury covering over 2,000 miles of New Mexico's
waterways. Analyses were provided, free of charge, by EPA s Environmental
Monitoring Systems Laboratory (EMSL) in Cincinnati, Ohio. EMSL was able
to provide a minimum detection limit of 0.7 ng/L (0.7 parts per trillion).
Using ultra-clean sample handling protocols developed by SWQB staff, over
two hundred stations were sampled before the EMSL project lost its funding
and was terminated. This study is the most comprehensive evaluation of
mercury levels in New Mexico's waters ever conducted. The Surface Water
Quality Bureau has been given the use of the analytical equipment used
in the State/EMSL mercury screening survey. This equipment now resides
at the Scientific Laboratory Division of the New Mexico Department of
Health (SLD). Staff of the SLD are currently developing a small clean
room to provide a suitable laboratory environment for the analysis of
mercury at low parts per trillion levels.
The data from that study show that, with some notable exceptions, mercury
levels in our rivers and streams are very low. The average concentration
of mercury in New Mexico's waters is less than 2.5 ng/L (Range: 0.0 ng/L
to 500.0 ng/L). No water sample drawn from any major waterway in New Mexico
has been found to contain mercury at a level that could pose any degree
of direct risk to humans or wildlife. While much work remains to be done,
to date it appears that in all but one instance where mercury was found
to exceed the current state chronic criterion of 12 ng/L (parts per trillion)
its occurrence can be attributed to either mining activity or storm water
runoff from Los Alamos National Laboratories (Up to >3,400 ng/L). The
single exception appears to be related to a coal seam in San Juan County.
Fish tissue mercury concentrations
Despite the extremely low concentrations of mercury in the State's waters,
levels in the tissues of certain fish, (usually large, predatory species),
can still exceed the FDA action limit of 1.0 part per million, an increase
over background of six orders of magnitude. It is this tendency of mercury
to biomagnify as it is passed up the food chain that generates concern.
Fish are about ten times as tolerant of mercury than are humans. This
is possible because they have evolved an efficient strategy for sequestering
mercury away from vital organs: they store it in muscle tissue - the portion
EPA Fact Sheet
In Our World and Community!
To gain a clear understanding of the impact of mercury
on our communities and lives, it is good to have an understanding of historical
mercury uses and what is happening right now. To do this, this section has
been divided into two sections-- Mercury through the Ages, which is an excellent
way to work on your students' history achievement standards and science
at the same time and Mercury Right Here and Now. There are things you can
do today to reduce mercury pollution in our world, giving the youth a sense
of immediate success and also helping the community by reducing the possibility
of mercury poisoning.
Mercury through the Ages
You will explore the historical uses of mercury, starting
from ancient cultures in Egypt and China, ending with a 1950s American
car classic and everything in between. You can contrast these historical
uses with the current uses described in previous sections of this curriculum
Mercury has been known since ancient times. The chemical
symbol, Hg, is taken from the Latin, hydrargyrus, meaning "liquid
silver". Evidence shows that the Chinese were using mercury before
2000 B.C. The ancients realized mercury was toxic and assigned the task
of mining quicksilver to slaves and prisoners. The average life span of
miners was 3 years from when they started this hazardous work. Ancient
Egyptian tombs contain vials of mercury, demonstrating the ability to
mine and refine mercury.
all mercury is derived from cinnabar, or mercury sulfide (HgS). Red cinnabar
is so rich in mercury content that droplets of elemental mercury can be
found in samples of the ore. The ore is heated with a reducing agent (such
as oxygen, iron, and quicklime) and the mercury vapor is released into
vertical columns of water where the mercury liquefies. Since mercury is
quite dense, mercury collects at the bottom while most impurities float
on the surface where they can be scraped away.
From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance
During the middle ages, alchemists experimented with various
ways of turning metals and other substances into gold. Many used mercury
in their processes and many were poisoned, although no one knew the cause
at the time.
Many of the English monarchs during this period also dabbled
in alchemy and some suspect that at least some of their erratic behavior
can be explained by mercury poisoning! King Charles II, who became king
of England in 1660, was a practicing chemist/alchemist who had his own
laboratory. He experienced personality changes late in life and died of
kidney failure, probably due to mercury poisoning.
Historians of science have studied the lives of several
famous scientists of the period and conclude that historical accounts
of certain periods of their lives, which correspond with their use of
mercury, exhibit strong evidence of the symptoms of mercury poisoning.
such notable is Sir Isaac Newton, although historians are quick to point
out that the period of suspected mercury poisoning in his life did not
occur while he was deriving the calculus or deducing the law of gravitation.
Newton also was an alchemist who actually tasted the chemicals he worked
with. At age 49, he became emotionally disturbed for a couple years. In
1979, hair strands from his corpse were tested for mercury and were found
to contain 75 parts per million. (Normal levels are about 5 parts per
Another scientist who worked with mercury and exhibited
some erratic behaviors was chemist and physicist Sir Michael Faraday,
discoverer of electricity. He used mercury in his electrical equipment
and suffered from memory loss and a nervous breakdown.
Mercury in Medicine
Mercury has been used in a variety of medical remedies
for a long time. One of its most important uses was for treatment of syphilis.
Since syphilis was rather widespread among the ruling families of Europe
and mercury was the most prominent treatment for several centuries, it
is surmised that many of these rulers experienced mercury poisoning. The
"common man" was also subject to this disease and the treatment
was the same-mercury. The following account illustrates how knowledge
of this treatment regime was put to good use in a recent archaeological
Archaeologists seeking the elusive remains of Fort Clasop,
the winter quarters of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805-1806, are
getting down to basics-they are looking for the camp's privies. Researchers
from the National Park Service, the Museum of the Rockies and the University
of Washington are analyzing levels of mercury in the soil at the site,
near Astoria Oregon. Mercury was a common Army treatment for syphilis:
Meriweather Lewis dispensed it in large doses to the men of the Corps
High levels of the metal in specific soil samples
would indicate the site of a privy. "With 33 men there for 106 days,
we should be able to find some high concentrations of mercury," said
Cindy Orlando, Superintendent of the Fort Clatsop National memorial. Because
Army regulations at the time stipulated that privies be locate certain
distances from encampments, finding signs of one would make it easier
to locate the 50-foot by 50-foot fort.
Route of the Lewis and Clark expedition
Mercury was also part of a common anti-depressive medication
formulation used during the 19th century. The following article, entitled
"Lincoln's Little Blue Pill," appearing on ABCNews.com on July
17, 2001, shows how users of this medication were probably exchanging
one set of symptoms (depression) for another (mercury poisoning.) It also
illustrates how the affects of mercury are reversible once the exposure
At one point during a debate, Lincoln reached over and
picked up a man by the collar and shook him "until his teeth chattered,"
according to a study that appears in the summer issue of Perspectives
in Biology and Medicine. He became so angry "his voice thrilled
and his whole frame shook," the study says. Lincoln only stopped
when someone, "fearing that he would shake Ficklin's head off,"
broke his grip. The study says mercury poisoning may explain Lincoln's
behavior. "We wondered how a man could be described as having the
patience of a saint in his 50s when only a few years earlier he was
subject to outbursts of rage and bizarre behavior," said Dr. Norbert
Hirschhorn, a retired public health physician, medical historian and
lead author of the study.
Abraham Lincoln during a calmer moment
The study reformulated "blue mass," a common
anti-depressive medication of the 19th century that Lincoln took. The
study shows that it would have delivered a daily dose of mercury exceeding
the current EPA safety standard by nearly 9,000 times. "Mercury
poisoning certainly would explain Lincoln's known neurological symptoms:
insomnia, tremor and rage attacks," said Dr. Robert G. Feldman,
an expert on heavy metal poisoning and co-author of the paper. "But
what is even more important, because the behavioral effects of mercury
may be reversible, it also explains the composure for which he was famous
during his tenure as president.
The ingredients in "blue mass," besides
mercury, included licorice root, rose water, honey, sugar and dead rose
petals, according to the study. It was compounded with an old-fashioned
mortar and pestle and rolled to size on a 19th-century pill tile. The
vapor released by two pills in the stomach would have been 40 times the
safe limit set by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health,
the researchers found. The amount of solid mercury absorbed from two pills
would have been 750 micrograms. The EPA indicates that only up to 21 micrograms
of any form of mercury per day may safely be ingested. Someone who consumed
the common dose of two to three little pills per day would have been at
serious risk for mercury poisoning, the study says. Mercury was also used
in antiseptic formulations (e.g. mercurochrome) and anti-itching compounds.
(e.g. calamine lotion).
By the 1800s, mercuric nitrate was widely used to
soften fur for hats. The resulting exposure of workers lead to a classic
syndrome and the phrase "mad as a hatter." In Danbury, Connecticut,
a center of hat making, the effects of exposure were characterized as
"Danbury Shakes." It was not until 1941 that the use of mercury
nitrate in hat making was banned in most states.
One of the world's best-known mercury mines--the Almaden
mine in Spain-has been in continuous operation since 400 B.C. Mercury's
discovery in California predates the discovery of gold by several years.
The discovery of commercial mercury ore bodies led to the development
and operation of numerous mines from the 1840s to the early 1960s, from
which more than 220,000,000 pounds of elemental mercury were produced.
The 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada created a ready market
for mercury produced by the mines in California's Coast Ranges. Mercury
forms a relatively insoluble amalgam with gold, and miners used this property
to increase gold recovery. An estimated 10 to 30 percent of the mercury
was lost to the environment in this process, transported into streams
and reservoirs along with the discharged sediments (tailings or ³slickens²)
from the hydraulic mining operations. Mercury from hydraulic mining has
been transported with sediments downstream into the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta estuary, where it has likely contributed to elevated mercury
concentrations in fish, resulting in consumption advisories.
Mercury in the Twentieth Century
Due to its many unique
properties, mercury achieved widespread use during the 1900s in industrial,
commercial and residential applications. Many of these uses are still
occurring today; other uses have been banned or phased out, for example
mercury in latex paints, children's sneakers that lit up and maze games.
One particularly interesting use of mercury that has since
been eliminated was in cars. Up to 40 pounds of mercury were incorporated
into the road leveling device on one model of late 1950s Studebaker. Who
knows what happened to all that mercury and are the vintage Studebaker
owners of today aware of what is in their vehicles? (Other uses of mercury
in cars, such as in tilt switches which control trunk lights, have not
been totally phased out as of yet.)
Mercury In Our World and What Can You Do!
Activity 8 - Mercury through the ages
Using the attached, "Unique
Properties of Mercury" and the Mercury though the Ages information
have the students complete the following activity.
For each of the following historic uses of mercury, indicate
the unique property(s) of mercury that forms the basis for this use and,
if time permits, think of or research a non-mercury alternative to that
|Road leveling device in cars
|Electrical tilt switches
|Children's maze games
Unique Properties of Mercury
|Only metal that is liquid at room temperature.
||Holds fascination for people of all ages.
Special ceremonial uses in several diferent cultures.
|Easily evaporates into the air.
||A blob of mercury sitting on the table
will eventually disappear. The mercury vapors can be extremely dangerous
|Very dense, yet fluid.
||Just a little bit weighs a lot, yet moves
around easily. This is useful in certain medical procedures.
|Good conductor of electricity.
||Used in electrical tilt switches and other
|Expands or contract uniformly with changes
||Used in thermometers and thermostats.
|Readily combines (amalgamates) with other
metals and meterials.
||Dentists combine it with silver to make
amalgam, which is used to fill cavities in teeth.
|Kills bacteria and fungi.
||Previously used in pesticides, paints
and on people to kill germs!
In Our World and Community!
Mercury Right Here and Now!
You may have already started by eliminating mercury in
your school and home or maybe you reduced your energy consumption. Now
it is time to take even greater action. In order to take community action
you need to know where your community stands. Have the students find out
what people know or do not know about mercury by conducting the "Local
Survey about Mercury". Once the students have done this, have them
report on their findings and the implications of those findings to the
Activity 9 - A Local Survey About Mercury
- design and conduct a survey of their community on the
subject of mercury;
- evaluate the results of the survey and develop an action
plan to address the survey findings.
Are residents in your community concerned about mercury?
Do any businesses use mercury in their operations? Does your community
have the cleanup equipment to handle a mercury spill? Do residents in
your community know about the health threats of mercury? Are any lakes
in your region listed in the state fish advisory? Do anglers care?
One method of finding answers to these questions and others
is to design a survey and conduct it in your community. It is an interactive
process that requires preparation, involvement and interpretation. The
results can lead students to take an active role in tackling an environmental
problem in their community.
Several different methods can be used to study information
and opinions about environmental issues. Here are 2 different methods.
Surveys can be used to collect information about
conditions in your school and community. They focus on information about
a specific problem in a certain area.
Example: How many mercury thermometers do you have in your home?
Opinionnaires measure the beliefs or opinions
of people at a specific time. They are that person's opinion - which
may or may not be accurate or correct. For example:
I believe mercury is dangerous to human health.
Before a method is selected, it is important that students
carefully decide the exact information that needs to be collected, the
geographic area they want to cover, and the target population that will
be surveyed. A combination of methods can also be used. Accurate collection
of the information is next. The students should prepare a data summary
sheet to record their information.
Once the data has been collected, students will be challenged
to interpret the information and suggest ways to share their results and
actions that need to be taken.
A valuable book to assist you in developing and utilizing
surveys is, "Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and
Actions: Skill Development Modules", by Harold Hungerford and others.
Stipes Publishing Company, 10-12 Chester Street, Champaign, IL 61820
1. Have the students use the sample survey or design a new one to conduct
a community survey on the topic of mercury. Students are encouraged to
add new questions especially targeted at their community.
2. Students will identify a target audience and conduct the survey. Target
audiences could include: homeowners, adults, students, or teachers.
3. Tabulate and analyze the results of the survey and prepare a report.
Students should then identify various action steps they could take to
increase the knowledge of the target audience on the subject of mercury.
Sample Mercury Survey
Hello, my name is _______________________. I am a student
at _____________School. I am doing research on mercury in our community.
I would like to ask you several questions about this topic. The survey
will take about 10 minutes.
Person Responding: Male ____ Female ____
Age: <20 ____ 20-40 ____ 40-60 ____ 60+ ____
1. Do you consider mercury dangerous to human health?
____ No ____
2. In the last year, have you heard or read of any local or national news
story that describes an incident involving mercury? Yes ____ No ____
3. Do you fish?
Yes ____ No ____
If yes, have you consulted the state fish advisory that describes the
warnings for eating fish from certain bodies of water?
Yes ____ No ____
For each of the following statements, tell me whether
you strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree.
4. All thermometers contain mercury.
5. Mercury should be stored in locked cabinets if it is
used at school.
6. Switches and thermostats that contain mercury should
be clearly labeled.
Please rate on a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (very important) the
7. Mercury should be banned from use in children's toys.
8. Non-essential uses of mercury should be phased out in
9. Firefighters and emergency personnel should be trained
to handle a mercury spill.
Please answer True or False to the following:
T ____ F ____ 10. Mercury spills in schools have resulted in evacuations
and expensive cleanups.
T ____ F ____ 11. Several different cultures use mercury for ceremonial
or religious purposes.
T ____ F ____ 12. Once mercury gets into your body, it may stay there
for several weeks.
T ____ F ____ 13. The burning of fossil fuels like coal releases mercury
into the air.
Please answer the following questions:
14. What would you do if you found a jar of mercury in your basement?
15. Do you read and follow the advice given in our state's Fish Consumption
Advisory? Why or Why not?
16. What are the symptoms of mercury poisoning?
17. Circle the household items that may contain mercury.
kid's maze games
switches in old washing machines
some nasal sprays
Mercury In Our World and Community
Now may be the time to take community action. Your
class or a group of students may wish to develop a community action plan.
This activity can be done at the beginning of the project; then you will
need to revise the plan based on what the students learned from the previous
activities. Or you may wish to do the plan at the end of your class mercury
Activity 10- Mercury Community Action Projects
Students will develop and implement an action plan
to reduce the concerns and impacts of mercury in their community.
Background materials in this set of activities.
Your students will be participating the "real
world"! Completing a "Community Action Project" is based
on the following assumptions:
- Society must solve community environmental issues with
participation from its young members.
- Students need to know they can be forces for constructive
- Students need the opportunity to investigate and act
upon a problem of their choice to increase their motivation to learn.
- The school and its community need to be connected to
show relevance to the real world. The classroom is part of the community
and the community is part of the classroom.
The Community Action Project will provide the students
an opportunity to apply the knowledge they have acquired about mercury
to improve how mercury is handled in the community. The students will
use skills in research, investigation, problem-solving and working in
Students can undertake this activity as a class or
in groups. They will brainstorm a list of recommendations for their community
on mercury reduction. Based on this list, they will choose one activity
and develop an action plan that will include the following:
- Identify the problem to be addressed
- List methods to address the problem
- Select the best action
- Determine the resources needed to complete the plan
- Identify possible partners for the program
- Develop a time line
- Implement the project
- Evaluate the project and suggest changes for future
The class or groups will then implement their action plan.
The following are some possible activities that the students
can develop for action plans:
- Organize a community outreach program about mercury;
for example display and handout(s) about mercury and take it to various
- Discuss mercury spill prevention and clean up with
school janitorial staff, local fire department and/or Hazmat (hazardous
- Promote a mercury or household hazardous waste collection
program in your community.
- Design and print labels for equipment that contains
mercury and work with school janitorial staff, nursing homes and/or
others to place these on mercury thermostats and other equipment;
- Check store inventories and work with store owners
to ensure that no mercury-containing games (e.g. maze games or toys)
are being sold to small children.
- "Adopt" a hospital, or nursing home
and work with them to minimize their use of mercury and safely recycle
their existing mercury.
- Work with your electric utility to promote a mercury
thermostat recycling program.
- Perform mercury school audits for grade schools and
middle schools in your school district.
- Determine if there are any rules pertaining to mercury
in your community or state, and if not, start a campaign to establish
- Investigate what popular stores in your community or
state are doing concerning the selling of items that contain mercury
(Walgreens, Walmart, Home Depot, etc.)
- Other ideas from the students