Mercury-Free Alternatives for Schools

factoryYour school may contain mercury and other hazardous materials that have been used in the past or may still be used for teaching and other purposes. Hazardous materials can be found in many areas, including science labs, art rooms, maintenance areas, nurse’s offices and home economics rooms. They may be dangerous because of their toxic, flammable or reactive properties.If these materials are being handled, stored or disposed of improperly, they can pose a risk to students, staff and the environment.

Mercury in particular is a persistent and toxic pollutant that accumulates in the environment, in wildlife and in humans. Lowered intelligence, impaired hearing and poor coordination are some of the effects in children with elevated mercury levels. While the most significant route of exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish, breathing vapor from spilled liquid mercury is also a significant route of exposure. This could occur at schools. Accidental mercury spills and breakages have proven expensive to clean up, in some cases, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

The purpose of this fact sheet is to help schools identify and find alternatives to mercury and other hazardous materials that may be present in your facilities. It focuses primarily on mercury compounds and mercury-containing equipment used in curriculum activity. Many adequate substitutes exist for devices used in schools that contain mercury. When purchasing new equipment or replacing any mercury containing devices, check to make sure that any new items do not contain mercury. If no alternative is available, choose the product containing the least amount of mercury for that particular device.

If you would like more information about mercury and hazardous materials management at schools, please contact Becky Jayne, Illinois EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention, at (217) 524-9642.

drill pressAutobody Class, Industrial Arts Class, and Wood and Metal Shops

ItemAlternative
Mercury GaugesElectronic or aneroid gauges
Manometers, Carburetor Synchronizers, Other Pressure-Measuring DevicesAneroid and electronic manometers and analog gauges (also known as vacuum gauges)
Switches in Electrical Equipment, Relays, Boilers, Cooling and Heating Equipment, Mercury-Containing Wall-Mounted Light Switches Manufactured Before 1991 ("silent" switches)Mercury-free switches, temperature devices, and relays, and gas equipment with electronic ignitions
Solvent based productsWater-based or bio-based solvents
LubricantsBio-based lubricants
Wood preservatives with pentachlorophenolUntreated wood and non-wood alternatives

chemistry equipmentBiology, Chemistry, Physics and Science Rooms

ItemAlternative
Elemental Mercury 
Mercury BarometerAneroid and digital; new liquid one is being developed
Mercury CompoundsMercury (II) chloride Mercury Iodine Mercury Nitrate Mercury Oxide Mercury (II) SulfateMagnesium Chloride/Sulfuric Acid or Zinc Formalin Freeze DryingPhenate methodAmmonia/Copper Sulfate, Neosporin, Mycin Copper CatalystSilver Nitrate/Potassium/Chromium (III) Sulfate
Mercury Gas Law ApparatusA simple Charles’ Law Apparatus may suffice.
Mercury Hydrometer 
Mercury HygrometerSpirit-filled glass bulb, digital and aneroid
Mercury Lab ThermometerAlcohol and mineral spirits glass bulbs, and digital
Mercury Molecular Motion Device 
Mercury Sling PsychrometerMineral spirits glass bulb thermometers, some can fit in old frames.
Hg Spectral Tube16 alternative gases are available
Mercury Vacuum GaugeNeedle or Digital Gauge
Zenker’s Solution (Mercury Chloride)Zinc Formalin
Colormetric Chloride AnalysisIon-selective electrode method
Residual mercury may be present in drains traps and catch basinsProperly clean traps and basins. Recycle mercury.
Formaldehyde or FormalinFormaldehyde-free preservatives
SolventsWater-based or bio-based solvents

thermostatHeating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Laboratories/Classrooms

ItemAlternative
Mercury ThermostatsAir-controlled, reed switch, vapor-filled diaphragm, snap-switch and programmable electronic
Mercury U-TubesElectronic and aneroid gauges
Mercury SwitchesHard-contact switches, solid-state switches, electro-optical switches, inductive sensors, capacitive sensors, photoelectric sensors, and ultrasonic sensors
Mercury Thermostat ProbesElectric flame sensors, electronic ignition
Float SwitchesMagnetic dry reed switches, optic sensors, and mechanical switches

cooking rangeHome Economics Classrooms

ItemAlternative
Mercury Cooking ThermometerSpirit-filled glass bulb, and digital
Washing Machine (power shut off)Mechanical switch
Freezer LightMechanical Switch
Flame Sensor on gas ovenElectronic ignition
Steam Iron with 15 minute Shut-off (tilt switch contains mercury)Iron with non-mercury switch

paint brushesArt Classrooms*

ItemAlternative
Cadmium Vermillion Red PaintMercury-free and cadmium-free paint
Ceramic GlazesLead and cadmium free glazes
Dyes (cold water and commercial)Vegetable dyes
Inhalation Hazards (e.g., clay in dry form, powdered paints, glazes, pigments, wheat paste and aerosol products)Wet or liquid non-aerosol products
Instant Paper-machePaper-mache made from black and white newspaper and library or white paste or flour and water paste
Solvent-based gluesWater-based glues
Solvent-based paintsWater-based paints
Permanent markersWater-based markers
Polymer clay (designed to harden at conventional oven temperatures)Paper-based, flour-based or wax-based clays
Low-temperature modeling clays (may contain glycol ethers or primary phthalate ethers)Paper-based, flour-based or wax-based clays
True Vermillion Paint (contains Mercury sulfide)Mercury-free paint
Wood stainsWater-based wood stains
Moth repellants (for textiles)Cedar chips, eucalyptus oil
Pigments used in printing inks, oils paints, and other mediaCadmium-free, lead-free and mercury-free alternatives are available
Solders for silver jewelryCadmium-free solder for silver jewelry
Stained-glass soldersLead-free solder

*Art or craft materials used in Illinois schools must meet the requirements of 105 Illinois Compiled Statutes 135 and 77 Illinois Administrative Code 848.

blood pressure cuffMedical Technology Classrooms and School Medical Offices

ItemAlternative
Fever ThermometersDigital, gallium-indium-tin thermometers, dot matrix thermometers
Blood Pressure DevicesDigital or aneroid
Topical Disinfectants containing mercurochrome or tincture of mertiolate*Alcohol or hydrogen peroxide
Contact Lens Solution containing thimerosol, phenylmercuric acetate or phenylmercuric nitrate*Thimerosol-free, phenylmercuric acetate-free or phenylmercuric nitrate-free contact lens solution
Nasal Sprays containing thimerosol, phenylmercuric acetate or phenylmercuric nitrate*Thimerosol-free phenylmercuric acetate –free or phenylmercuric nitrate-free nasal sprays

*Note: The primary concern is the disposal and not the exposure to mercury. No studies have confirmed any health risk associated with the identified mercury applications.

light switchNon-educational Mercury-Containing Items

ItemAlternative
ThermostatsAir-controlled, reed switch, vapor-filled diaphragm, snap-switch and programmable electronic
Fluorescent LampsNo alternative; properly recycle
Mercury Vapor LampsNo alternative; properly recycle
Metal Halide LampsNo alternative; properly recycle
High-Pressure Vapor Sodium LampsNo alternative; properly recycle
Mercury GaugesElectronic or aneroid gauges
Light Switches ("silent" switches)New light switches don’t contain mercury
Mercury Switches and RelaysSwitches and relays with electronic
Mercury thermostat probes and flame sensorsHard-contact switches, inductive sensors, capacitive sensors, photoelectric sensors, and ultrasonic sensors
Old Latex Paint (purchased prior to 1992)Properly dispose
Fungicides (purchased prior to 1994)Properly dispose
Pesticides (purchased prior to 1994)Properly dispose

Sources:

  • "Mercury-Containing Products and Alternatives", INFORM Inc., 2002
  • "Identification of Mercury Devices in School Medical, Home Economic, Art and Other Rooms", Revised Draft Checklist, Northeast Waste Management Officials Association, 2002
  • "Guidelines for the Safe Use of Art and Craft Materials", California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, August 2002
  • "Mercury in Science Laboratories and Classrooms", Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Northeast Waste Management Officials Association
  • "Mercury in School Buildings and Maintenance Areas", Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Northeast Waste Management Officials Association
  • "Mercury in the Medical Office and in Medical Technology Classrooms in Vocational Technical Schools", Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Northeast Waste Management Officials Association
  • "Mercury in the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Laboratories in Voc-Tech Schools", Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Northeast Waste Management Officials Association
  • "Mercury Awareness for School Teachers", Ohio EPA, Office of Pollution Prevention, June 2001