U creates task force to check mercury levels

by Ryan Dionne

The potentially toxic element number 80 on the periodic table of elements can be found everywhere.

The metal, mercury, is in some thermostats and thermometers, most tooth fillings and fluorescent lights, air, soil, water and the human body, said Mike Austin, assistant director for the University’s Industrial Hygiene and Safety Division.

In January, the University created a 12-person task force to assess the mercury level in University buildings, he said.

“The purpose of the task force is to set standards and procedures for assessing buildings,” Austin said.

Though there are standards for assessing other building hazards, such as lead and

asbestos, there are no standards for mercury.

Any building with plans for construction within the next six years will be assessed, he said.

Priority is given to science-related buildings, such as Kolthoff Hall, Austin said.

Andy Phelan, assistant director of the University’s Department of Evironmental Health and Safety, said the most common cleanups of the element in University buildings result from broken thermometers containing mercury.

If too much mercury enters the body, it affects the nervous system and could cause tremors or other health hazards, Austin said.

He said the primary way mercury enters the body is through food consumption.

“Fish are the ones that we’re worried about,” Austin said.

Other sources of mercury contamination include inhalation of mercury vapor.

Mercury vapor is emitted into the environment partially through coal-generated power plants, he said.

Though the element causes people little harm in most circumstances, Austin said, it’s a toxic material that is found in many University buildings.

“Lately, mercury has become more of a hot-button issue,” he said.

Decades ago, some people used to play with the element.

Retired University chemistry professor Doyle Britton said that he received vials of the metal from his dentist approximately 60 years ago, when he was a child.

Britton said he would put it in his mouth, roll it around and spit it out.

Now, the mercury gathered is transported out of state as waste, Austin said.

“Minnesota has an unusual law, maybe a unique law, that prohibits the disposal of mercury in landfills,” Austin said.

After mercury waste is collected and purified, some of it is reusable.

The reusable metal is transported to Port Washington, Wis., said Gene Christenson, chemical waste manager for the University.

When a building is remodeled or demolished, much

of the construction debris

is also transported out of


“We don’t allow any mercury-contaminated debris to go into a construction landfill (in Minnesota),” Austin said.

Transporting the contaminants to a different state doesn’t solve the environmental problem, he said.

“I think that’s a little wacky, though,” he said. “From an environmental standpoint, I’d rather not export our problems.”