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Three Vermont Hospitals among 47 in New England Recognized by EPA For Mercury Reduction Efforts

Release Date: 04/19/2001
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today recognized 47 New England hospitals - including 3 in Vermont - for their successful efforts over the past year in reducing their use of mercury, a toxic pollutant that is pervasive in water bodies and freshwater fish all across New England.

The 47 health-care facilities were honored at a news conference at Hartford Hospital as part of EPA's "Partners for Change" Mercury Challenge Program. This year's 47 participants –including North County Hospital in Newport, Porter Medical Center in Middlebury, and the VA Medical Center in White River Junction -- represent more than a three-fold increase from last year's 13 facilities.

Over the last two years, participants in the voluntary program have eliminated more than 1,120 pounds of mercury from their waste streams by replacing mercury-containing equipment such as thermometers and sphygmomanometers, recycling and/or replacing high mercury flourescent bulbs with lower mercury bulbs, reducing use of mercury-containing laboratory chemicals and educating staff on mercury reduction techniques.

Very small amounts of mercury can cause significant damage. One gram of mercury per year is enough to contaminate all the fish in a lake with a surface area of 20 acres.

"Medical facilities across New England are making a major difference in reducing mercury in our environment," said Ira Leighton, acting regional administrator at EPA's New England Office, which launched the voluntary program in 1999. "These facilities deserve a lot of credit for their leadership and commitment in tackling one of the region's most serious environmental and public health threats. I'm proud to recognize the 3 facilities leading the way in Vermont."

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that moves between water, air and soil as a result of natural and human activities. Coal-burning power plants and solid waste incineration are the primary sources of mercury pollution nationwide.

Mercury exposure can lead to irreversible neurological effects, including learning disabilities and delayed motor skill development, particularly in young children. Across New England, 83 percent of the rivers, lakes and streams are so polluted with mercury that residents must limit their consumption of freshwater fish caught in them. All six New England states have fish advisories in place due to mercury contamination.

The Partners for Change Mercury Challenge is designed to promote voluntary, measurable mercury reductions at medical facilities. Medical facilities commit to meeting their own specified mercury reduction goals and agree to make good faith voluntary efforts to identify and implement prevention measures. To be recognized as a partner, a medical facility must have a mercury inventory, set a quantifiable mercury reduction goal, implement an action plan, and report on progress made toward achieving its goal.

To help boost participation in the program, EPA last fall mailed letters to all 276 of New England's health care facilities, challenging them to eliminate mercury and mercury containing waste from their waste streams by 2003.

After this year, the regional Partners for Change Mercury Challenge program will be incorporated into a national mercury reduction effort, "Hospitals for a Healthy Environment," coordinated between EPA and the American Hospital Association. More information on this program is available at http://www.h2e-online.org/in_hospital.asp.

The Mercury Challenge Program is among numerous actions EPA has taken in recent years to reduce mercury emissions into the environment. Among those steps:

    • EPA announced in December it will require reductions of mercury emissions from coal-burning plants nationally. This decision is important to New England both for the plants within the region and because significant amounts of mercury drift into the region from upwind states.
    • EPA has already taken steps to substantially reduce mercury emissions from municipal and medical waste incinerators, which is important for New England because so many municipalities and hospitals burn their waste. Municipal incinerators are New England's largest source of airborne mercury, accounting for half of the mercury in the air compared to only 10 percent from the region's power plants. EPA guidelines issued in 1995 have resulted in a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions from these incinerators. In 1997, EPA also issued guidelines requiring medical waste incinerators to reduce their emissions. In recent years all New England states have adopted or are intending to adopt even stricter state standards for incinerator emissions.
    • And in November of last year, EPA's New England Office sent letters to all of the region's cities and towns, calling on them to ban the retail sales of mercury fever thermometers in their communities. The letter was sent on the heels of the city of Boston banning such sales.
The Vermont hospitals recognized as Mercury Challenge Partners for Change are:

North County Hospital in Newport
EPA is recognizing North County Hospital under the Mercury Challenge program for its mercury reduction plan which includes phasing out mercury thermometers and sphygmomanometers over the next two years. In 1999, the hospital replaced its mercury-filled esophageal dilators, while the hospital has been replacing mercury thermometers and batteries over the last several years.

Porter Medical Center in Middlebury
Porter Medical Center is being recognized for the second year under the Mercury Challenge program. Its achievements include completing its plan to replace its mercury-containing gastrointestinal tubes with a mercury free alternative, educating staff regarding mercury, working with its purchasing department to review products for mercury content, working with construction contractors to make them more aware of products that might contain mercury and continuing its fluorescent light bulb recycling program. These accomplishments build on last years efforts which included the elimination of mercury-containing sphygmomanometers and 98% of its mercury thermometers. In addition, last year all ten of the medical center's satellite locations also completely eliminated mercury sphygmomanometers.

VA Medical Center in White River Junction
The VA Medical Center has eliminated mercury thermometers except in limited situations for the chemistry laboratory and eliminated of mercury blood pressure units. The VA Medical Center estimates that it is 95% mercury free through mercury reduction efforts over the last three years. All other sources of mercury have been identified and will be removed when feasible.

For more information on how to reduce mercury at a medical facility, call 1-888-372-7341. Request the "Mercury Challenge environmental pocketbook," a resource guide with useful tips on mercury reduction, as well as phone, e-mail and worldwide web listings of EPA help lines or access our Mercury Challenge website at

http://www.epa.gov/region01/healthcare/mercurychallenge.html