UCSF and City of San Francisco launch thermometer exchange program

December 10, 2002

Helping to rid households of a toxic but little known hazard, UCSF and the City of San Francisco have launched a program enabling residents to exchange mercury thermometers for safer digital versions at no cost. The program’s first permanent site opened recently at the UCSF Bookstore at 500 Parnassus Avenue.

“This is a great example of the City and UCSF working together to provide solutions for the community,” said San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell at the exchange program’s opening. “Check your medicine cabinets, your kitchen cupboards, and your ‘junk’ drawers for old thermometers. It’s an important way for us to be good stewards of our local environment.”

Thermometers containing mercury, a liquid metal, have become an increasing environmental concern in recent years. Mercury poses significant risk even at low levels; droplets from a broken thermometer can cause neurological damage if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Unfortunately, mercury from shattered thermometers often winds up in landfills, contaminating the surroundings, and in waste water.

A half-gram of the metal - the amount found in an average thermometer - is enough to pollute 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Yet, according to San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, as much as 16 grams of mercury are discharged daily into San Francisco Bay with the city’s waste water.

In April 2000, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned the manufacture and sale of mercury thermometers and their use in city-owned hospitals. The State of California followed suit last July; currently the U.S. Congress is considering a nationwide ban.

Although the city has set up temporary thermometer exchange sites over the last two years, Eugene Lau, director of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) at UCSF, felt the university could make an important contribution by establishing a permanent disposal site.

“We wanted to do something good for the community,” said Lau. “Our department and staff have always been active in environmental cleanup and other community efforts.” In developing the exchange program, Lau was assisted by Jim Sobczyk, manager of the UCSF Bookstore, and Marjaneh Zarrehparvar of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Lau opened the UCSF Bookstore exchange site last week with Jack McGurk, chief of the Environmental Management Branch of the California Department of Public Health; Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment; and Supervisor Maxwell.

In the first week of operation, 568 mercury thermometers were brought in for exchange. Trained bookstore staff sealed each thermometer in a plastic bag, then placed the bag in a specially lined five-gallon drum. The city’s hazardous waste services workers will retrieve the drums for safe disposal. A grant from the city pays for the digital thermometers, which normally retail for about $6.50 each.

UCSF’s efforts to dispose of mercury already have earned wide praise, receiving an award from California Health Care Without Harm, a non-profit group advocating reductions in the use of toxic materials. On Dec. 9, Supervisor Maxwell proposed legislation to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors commending UCSF for its exchange program.
City residents who wish to exchange thermometers may bring them to the UCSF Bookstore, at Millberry Union at 500 Parnassus Ave. on the university’s main campus, during normal hours:

* Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Mercury thermometers are easily recognized: Generally they contain gray liquid, while those with red are made of iodine.)

For more information about the program, citizens may call the Bookstore at 415-476-1666.