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Published: Friday, 7/18/2003

BGSU sets mercury disposal standard

Health and safety coordinator Dave Heinlen says BGSU often helps others dispose of mercury. Health and safety coordinator Dave Heinlen says BGSU often helps others dispose of mercury.

BOWLING GREEN - The small, windowless room at Bowling Green State University is filled with pails of thermometers, blood pressure measuring devices, and thermostats.

It's not a supply closet; it's the university's hazardous waste storage facility.

BGSU has collected the items - many from residents and businesses - as part of its elemental mercury collection and reclamation program, so that the toxic mercury inside can be recycled. Since 1998, more than 6,500 pounds of quicksilver have passed through here.

The program was honored this week for its innovation and uniqueness by the Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association, a division of the National Safety Council.

“I would hope that other college campuses and other communities will learn from the processes that Bowling Green has developed in this case,” said John Ulczycki, a spokesman for the National Safety Council.

Mercury is a toxic, naturally occurring element that is harmful if inhaled when it vaporizes. It is 131/2 times as heavy as water and has been used in a myriad of products, such as fluorescent bulbs, batteries, and medical equipment, including thermometers.

“It's used in a lot of different ways, and so getting rid of it is not an easy thing to do,” Mr. Ulczycki said.

BGSU knows that firsthand. In 1990, plumbing work in Overman Hall resulted in a spill of up to eight pounds of mercury that had been poured down a laboratory sink over a 30-year period. The damage cost more than $300,000, and officials had to find temporary classrooms for hundreds of students for several months.

Now, officials like Dave Heinlen, BGSU safety and health coordinator, are happy to help others deal with the metal. What started as a small initiative has spread, with the help of several partnering agencies, across the state and even into neighboring states.

“We began collecting materials, and we found there's a lot out there,” Mr. Heinlen said.

BGSU serves as a repository for the items before they make their way to a business that refines the mercury and puts it into other devices.

David Wilkinson, director of environmental services for Toledo Hospital, said the program has saved the hospital money. This year it has donated at least 150 items, mainly blood pressure measuring devices and thermometers.

“It used to cost a lot of money to have those disposed of, and Bowling Green takes them for free,” he said.

Mr. Heinlen said the program may not eliminate mercury products from the area, but it can make an important dent.

“At least the program gets it out of the hands of people who don't need it, which is the vast majority,” he said.

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