Lab safety campaign makes UIC mercury-free


Carlos Lopez and Heather Jackson of the Environmental Health and Safety Office led a campaign to encourage labs to find alternatives for equipment containing mercury. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services


As summer heats up, the use of mercury thermometers on campus is going down with the Mercury-Free UIC Initiative, a campaign to eliminate mercury at UIC.

The campaign was conducted by the Environmental Health and Safety Office, which works to create a healthy campus free of toxic chemical waste.

Carlos Lopez, the office’s lab safety adviser, coordinated the eight-month-long initiative that started last fall. “The No. 1 cleanup response we have is for mercury spills on campus,” he said.

Educational flyers for students and researchers suggested alternatives for mercury-containing laboratory equipment, which includes thermometers, light bulbs, light switches and barometers. The Mercury-Free UIC Initiative offered to dispose of the mercury-containing equipment at no cost to individual laboratories.

Mercury spills expose lab workers to toxic vapors and other health risks. Mercury droplets scatter when they hit the floor and other surfaces, so cleanup includes collecting them manually with a sponge. Then the lab must be checked with mercury detectors to make sure the air isn’t contaminated.

Lopez said the disposal of 2 millimeters of mercury, the amount in a standard thermometer, costs about $50 and takes a minimum of two hours. “Cleanup time is long and intensive,” he said.

“It’s not something we want people to be exposed to because of the toxicity,” said Heather Jackson, assistant director of laboratory safety and environmental compliance. Jackson said campus response to the initiative was even greater than expected.

“We originally were going to do it just for the first semester of the year, but there was such overwhelming demand that we extended it for the whole school year,” she said.

Environmental Health and Safety disposed of 230 mercury thermometers and 30 other mercury-containing equipment pieces. The result is an almost mercury-free campus; a few researchers still need mercury thermometers because their work requires extremely accurate temperature measurements.

Lopez and Jackson said the next chemical safety initiative may focus on using less toxic alternatives to ethidium bromide, a chemical that causes mutations and cancer.

For more information on disposing of mercury in campus laboratories, call 312-996-7411 or email


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