Niagara Falls: from honeymoon to Love Canal and back by RR Roll

Wasteland to parkland: the Cherry Farm/River Road Remediation by JG Goeddertz, JH Kyles, MS Raybuck

Niagara River toxics 2000 by Niagara River Secretariate

Involving youth in water quality issues by J Spisiak

Remedial action plans in Lake Ontario Basin

Coarse monomedia filtration: a solution to wet weather flow by BT Smith and KM Miller

Water resources management history project by RD Hennigan

Managing Mercury in Erie County by MC Rossi

People and places

President's message by AJ Zabinski

Executive director's report by P Cerro-Reehil

WEF news

Fall 2000 — Vol. 30, No. 3


Managing mercury in Erie County

by Mary C. Rossi

Quick reference
- Education program
- Healthcare initiative

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that occurs naturally in the environment. It is present in air, water, soil, and rock. The element is liquid at room temperature, conducts electricity, combines easily with other metals, is used to measure temperature and pressure, and works as a biocide and preservative. The many useful properties of mercury have led to its application in numerous household, medical, and industrial products. Mercury exists in both organic and inorganic forms:

  • Organic mercury, also known as methylmercury, is
  • the most toxic form. It is a strong neurotoxin and readily attacks the brain and nervous system. The most common route of exposure to organic mercury is from ingesting contaminated fish. Other routes of human exposure are inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact.

  • Exposure to inorganic mercury primarily affects
  • the kidneys and other organs, although it too is a neurotoxin. Humans are exposed to inorganic mercury primarily through inhalation.

Mercury is persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT). The adverse environmental and human health effects of PBT chemical exposure cause great concern when the substances are released to or detected in the environment. Mercury has been identified as an environmental pollutant of concern across the Great Lakes Basin. The USEPA, Environment Canada, International Joint Commission, and many state and provincial governments have targeted mercury as one of the most critical pollutants for elimination or reduction. The element, however, is not solely a Great Lakes concern but a national and global problem as well because it can travel long distances in the atmosphere.

Studies indicate atmospheric transport and deposition, wet deposition in particular, is the dominant pathway delivering mercury to many of the world's rivers, lakes, and oceans. Simply put, rain and snow return airborne mercury to the surface of the earth where it accumulates on land and in water bodies.

Figure 1. Circulation of mercury in atmosphere: 1. Release from the two largest sources, coal-fired electric power plants and solid waste incinerators. 2. Return to earth's surface.

Erie County administers two USEPA-funded mercury pollution prevention programs, an education program and a healthcare industry initiative. Although the programs address different audiences, they share a basic framework:

  • Increase awareness of the environmental and human health effects of mercury
  • Provide information on products containing mercury and mercury-free alternatives
  • Identify practices that release mercury to the environment
  • Ensure proper disposal of mercury and mercury-containing products.

Education program

Erie County hopes to eliminate mercury from the nonhazardous waste stream through education and collection or recycling opportunities. The program seeks to educate the public on common sources of mercury and the environmental effect of mercury pollution through outreach to the public and businesses.


Community education endeavors often entail collaboration with local educators and participation in community events. Information packets which include lesson plans, activities, and other resources for classroom use, have been distributed to all schools in Erie County to assist educators with integrating pollution prevention principles with their prescribed curriculums. An animated slide presentation on mercury pollution prevention has been delivered to numerous classrooms throughout the county. Typical follow-up activities used by educators include a household mercury survey completed by the student and parents. The survey is reviewed in class and returned to the parents with student recommendations for mercury-free alternatives and information on household hazardous waste collection events. A mercury poster presentation and household product display, which identifies common household products which contain mercury and mercury-free alternatives, offers visual support during presentations and supplements the distribution of public information materials at community events

Community thermometer exchange, mercury poster presentation and household product display

Integral to the education program are the options for no-cost disposal of mercury-based household products. Erie County has two mechanisms available for disposal of household products containing mercury, both of which entail recycling. Community thermometer exchanges offer individual households an opportunity to replace mercury fever thermometers with a mercury-free thermometer. The most common mercury spill in the home involves broken fever thermometers. By eliminating them from households, the potential for a spill decreases substantially.

To dispose of other household products that contain mercury, such as thermostats, button batteries and switches, residents may use the County-sponsored Household Hazardous Waste Collections. The disposal opportunities are well attended and to date, 1190 thermometers, 424 mercury devices, and 324 lb of elemental mercury have been collected for recycling.

Commercial and public organizations

The education services that the County offers to businesses, government agencies, and public facilities focus on education and outreach, on-site technical assistance, and disposal opportunities. Education and outreach is accomplished through direct contact, collaboration with professional organizations, and workshops. These endeavors typically identify common sources of mercury, address the environmental effect of mercury pollution, and showcase mercury-free alternatives. On-site technical assistance uses an environmental audit of a facility that targets mercury but encompasses all waste streams. Follow-up assistance provides recommendations for pollution prevention and information on nonhazardous alternatives. The County's Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generator Hazardous Waste Disposal Program offers low-cost disposal of hazardous waste, such as mercury, provided the client meets Small Quantity Generator guidelines.

Dental mercury

Kossel shell structure of mercury
Erie County is collaborating with the local dental society to promote dental waste management practices that minimize the release of mercury to the environment. Waste mercury amalgam is typically disposed as regulated medical waste and is subject to incineration, which releases mercury to the atmosphere. The local dental society is in the process of investigating the feasibility of endorsing a dental waste management service for its constituents. Current efforts with the dental community consist of verbal commitments to co-sponsor a regional workshop to feature best management practices for dental operations and an education campaign. Recent outreach activities have included promoting the Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generator Hazardous Waste Disposal Program and two mercury collections. Many dentists continue to store elemental mercury even though the material is no longer in active use. The collection offered dentists an opportunity to dispose of, and ultimately recycle, 137 lb of elemental mercury stock at no cost.
In his 1865 book Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll introduced a character named the Mad Hatter. Although Carroll's Mad Hatter was fictional, the strange and unpredictable behavior he displayed was not uncommon among people employed in the felt hat industry in the 1800s. Mercury nitrate was used in the felting process, and constant exposure to the chemical eventually caused the hatters to develop mercury poisoning. The connection between mercury poisoning and the hatter's behavior was not understood at the time, but the term "Mad as a Hatter" was in common usage.

Automobile facilities

The County is also assisting the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation with an automotive mercury switch recycling project which targets automobile recycling facilities in Erie, Niagara, and Monroe counties. Program staff have reached out to a number of facilities, assisted operators with identifying automobiles that contain mercury switches in the trunk lighting mechanism, and scheduled disposal arrangements. To date, over four thousand switches have been collected.

Healthcare initiative

Erie County's Mercury Pollution Prevention in Healthcare Initiative is a 2-year technical assistance project for the healthcare industry. The overall goal is to join with four area hospitals to develop, implement, and measure the success of mercury pollution prevention and reduction strategies. Pollution prevention offers a logical, economical, and feasible way to eliminate mercury pollution from healthcare sources. The initiative establishes a collaborative partnership between the Erie County Office of Pollution Prevention, the Western New York Healthcare Association (WNYHA , which represents hospitals and health care facilities in the eight counties of western New York), and the Buffalo Sewer Authority (BSA). WNYHA has assisted the County's mercury program staff with securing commitments from four hospitals by advocating and communicating the value, importance, and benefits of mercury reduction. The BSA provides technical support to assist participants in complying with mercury discharge limits in their permits. It will also conduct wastewater sampling and analysis as necessary.

Incorporating pollution prevention practices into the day-to-day operations of running a healthcare organization is an effective long-term strategy to reduce the effect of the facilities on the environment. The Mercury Pollution Prevention in Healthcare Initiative demonstrates the value of pollution prevention in reducing toxic loading from the healthcare industry while maintaining quality care for patients. Elements of the program include:

  • Promoting the USEPA/American Hospital Association Memorandum of Understanding, one goal of which is to virtually eliminate mercury waste generated by hospitals by the year 2005
  • Preliminary assessment of mercury use within each facility
  • Technical expertise and guidance on source identification and reduction strategies
  • Employee education programs
  • Calculating total mercury reduction achieved.

The Mercury Pollution Prevention in Healthcare Initiative is in its initial stages. A mercury awareness and education campaign is currently underway to familiarize the employees of the participating hospitals with the project goals and provide background information on mercury pollution. A thermometer exchange will be conducted at each facility to increase employee awareness and offer an opportunity to eliminate mercury from their homes. To identify current mercury use and storage in the hospital, a short survey was distributed to department managers; the results of the survey are under review and will be used to establish goals and determine an effective course of action to achieve the program objectives.

Protecting the environment, and thereby protecting human health, by reducing the presence of mercury is within the reach of every household, business, public agency and, notably, healthcare organization. The reduction of mercury positively influences community health by eliminating a known hazard. All facets of society can set a positive example and a high standard for promoting human health and environmental protection by becoming involved in mercury reduction efforts.
Mary C. Rossi is Mercury Program Manager in the Office of Pollution Prevention in the Erie County Department of Environment & Planning. Phone 716-858-7583.


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