Magazine article Medical Economics

0.30 Ounces of Mercury Caused Me 3 Tons of Trouble

Magazine article Medical Economics

0.30 Ounces of Mercury Caused Me 3 Tons of Trouble

Article excerpt

When I arrived at my clinic, I was surprised to find the examining room I use was closed. A nurse told me that a sphygmomanometer had broken and the room was contaminated by mercury. The maintenance people would clean it up, she said.

So I saw my first patients in the room where we do echos. Later in the day, when my examining room still wasn't available, I called the maintenance supervisor. No problem, he said; the room would be vacuumed shortly.

The next day, the room was cordoned off with tape, as if it were a crime scene. A notice on the door warned that the room was contaminated and, by order of the clinic administrator, was not to be used.

At that point, I called a local hospital to see how they handled a manometer mercury spill. A nursing supervisor told me the same thing our maintenance supervisor had said: Once vacuumed, the room would be safe. I passed on what I'd learned to the clinic's administration.

Two days later, the room was still unavailable. To be absolutely sure of my facts, I called environmental experts and others at University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Henly Ford Hospital in Detroit, the Mayo Clinic, and the manometer's manufacturer. Everyone agreed that the amount of mercury in a sphygmomanometer--about three-tenths of a fluid ounce--could simply be vacuumed up. And the smallest mercury spill that must be reported to OSHA is a full pound.

Any trace of mercury remaining in the carpet after vacuuming wouldn't be an environmental or health hazard, everybody assured me. For the uncleaned room to pose a danger, the temperature would have to exceed 100 degrees, and someone would have to spend several hours on the floor, close to the mercury. That seemed highly unlikely.

Despite my research efforts, the room still hadn't reopened four days after the spill. The administrator had called in an environmental expert who worked at a factory that makes thermostatic switches containing mercury. …

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