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Phase-Out of Mercury Thermometers Used in Industrial and Laboratory Settings

Revising ASTM Standards

With EPA's help, ASTM has updated multiple ASTM standards to approve the use of mercury-free alternatives for temperature measurement. View a list of the updated ASTM standards (PDF) (10 pp, 46 KB, about PDF)

Overview

Mercury use in products can lead to releases to the environment through the manufacturing of the products; via spills and breakage; and during the recycling, collection and disposal of mercury-containing products.

As part of a broader initiative to reduce the use of mercury in products, EPA is working with stakeholders to reduce the use of mercury-containing non-fever thermometers in industrial and commercial settings. Measurement and control devices, including glass non-fever thermometers, found in industrial and laboratory settings represent a major use category for mercury-containing products, but in many cases effective non-mercury alternative products exist.

EPA is examining ways to transition to mercury-free alternatives both within EPA and outside of the Agency. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is working with EPA on this effort, announced on February 2, 2011 that it will no longer calibrate mercury-in-glass thermometers for traceability purposes beginning on March 1, 2011.

Information about the Phase-Out of Mercury Thermometers Used in Industrial and Laboratory Settings

In January 2012, EPA issued a final rule incorporating updated ASTM International (ASTM) standards into EPA regulations (PDF) (11 pp, 204 K). These changes provide flexibility to use alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers. The rule applies to certain regulations pertaining to: (a) petroleum refining, (b) power generation, and (c) polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste disposal.

On this page:

  • Questions and Answers about Phasing-Out Industrial Mercury-Containing Thermometers
  • EPA’s Efforts to Phase-Out Mercury Non-Fever Thermometers
  • Partnerships
  • Other Organizations’ Phase-Out Activities
  • Tutorial Videos
  • Questions and Answers about Phasing-Out Industrial Mercury-Containing Thermometers

    Why are mercury thermometers being replaced?

    Mercury is well documented as a toxic, environmentally-persistent substance. Several states prohibit the sale of mercury-containing thermometers.

    Will the replacement of mercury thermometers be problematic?

    For most applications, alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers are available. However, there are certain applications where the use of alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers is more difficult, such as the use of thermometers in high temperature devices such as autoclaves (where alternatives to mercury are not commonly used).

    The following document provides a compilation of guidance on the use of alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers.

    What types of non-mercury-containing thermometers are currently available?

    There are several types of non-mercury-containing thermometers, including both liquid-in-glass and electronic digital thermometers. An example of an electronic digital thermometer is the platinum resistance thermometer. Others include the thermistor and the thermocouple. Non-mercury organic-liquid-filled-glass thermometers are also a replacement for mercury thermometers.

    Read more about selecting alternatives to mercury-filled thermometers.

    Are non-mercury-containing thermometers as accurate as mercury-containing thermometers?

    The non-mercury platinum resistance thermometer is as accurate as mercury-containing thermometers through a wide temperature range. Non-mercury thermistors are accurate but have a limited temperature range. Non-mercury thermocouples are not as accurate as resistance thermometers or thermistors but are widely used because of their durability. Non-mercury liquid-in-glass thermometers are not as accurate and are typically used when applications call for modest uncertainty requirements.

    Are non-mercury-containing thermometers as durable as mercury-containing thermometers?

    Like a mercury-containing thermometer, the platinum resistance thermometer is sensitive to mechanical shock. Thermistors are less sensitive and thermocouples are very durable. Non-mercury liquid-in-glass thermometers are as durable as mercury liquid-in-glass thermometers.

    Are alternative thermometers more expensive than mercury-containing thermometers?

    Electronic thermometers are typically more expensive than mercury-containing thermometers. However, using non-mercury-containing thermometers avoids the potential cost of mercury spill clean-up and disposal.

    Are non-mercury-containing thermometers National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) traceable?

    Yes, if:

    1. An unbroken chain of measurements back to NIST standards is maintained; and
    2. Each step of the chain has known and documented uncertainties; and
    3. There is a system to ensure that the thermometers and other equipment used remains accurate between calibrations.

    Read more about maintaining traceability.

    Barriers to Replacement of Mercury Thermometers

    Are there Federal and State regulations which require the use of mercury thermometers?

    Yes, some Federal and State regulations contain requirements to use mercury thermometers either directly or through citations of standards and methods from organizations such as ASTM International and the American Petroleum Institute (API).

    With regulations requiring the use of mercury thermometers, how will the industrial and commercial community be able to reduce the use of mercury thermometers?

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps to revise its regulations to allow non-mercury alternative thermometers. In addition, EPA is working with ASTM International and the API to revise their standards to include flexibility allowing non-mercury alternatives.

    Is there a technical basis for requiring the use of mercury thermometers?

    No. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has concluded that there are no fundamental barriers to the replacement of mercury thermometers. NIST and EPA are collaborating to resolve difficulties in using alternative thermometers in certain elevated temperature applications, such as autoclave operations and asphalt processing.

    Disposal of Industrial Mercury Thermometers

    How and where do I dispose of an industrial mercury-containing thermometer?

    For industrial thermometers, you may:

    Contact your state hazardous waste authority for information on state regulations that may apply to you, as these regulations vary by state (including the definition of universal waste). State hazardous waste authorities can also help you locate a mercury-containing device recycling facility. You may also locate a mercury-containing device recycling facility online that is nearest you by searching Earth911.com Exit EPA Disclaimer.

    If a thermometer breaks, extra steps are needed to avoid harmful exposure to mercury. Read more about proper mercury cleanup and disposal.

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    EPA’s Efforts to Phase-Out Mercury Non-Fever Thermometers

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    Partnerships

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    Other Organizations’ Phase-Out Activities

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    Tutorial Videos

    EPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Thermometry Group developed the following tutorial videos that provide information on mercury-containing thermometer alternatives for industrial and laboratory settings. Along with showcasing the available mercury-free thermometers on the market today, the videos cover important thermometry concepts such as traceability and the proper calibration of thermometers.

    For more information, contact Robert Courtnage at EPA, of the Fibers and Organics Branch, at 202-566-1081.

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