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NIST Drive to Reduce Mercury Heats Up (back to article)

Narrator: There’s a toxic substance that could be rattling around in your drawers, hanging on your walls at home or at work, just waiting to break out of its glass prison.

Visual: A silver drop of mercury falls in front of the camera. A drawer opens to reveal several mercury thermometers. A graphic of a mercury thermometer showing the mercury rising. A hand accidentally pushes a mercury thermometer off a tabletop and the thermometer breaks on the floor.

Narrator: Greg Strouse, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is on a mission to show that we don’t need this dangerous substance—mercury—to tell the temperature.

Visual: Dr. Strouse sits in his lab. A sign appears that reads “National Institute of Standards and Technology.” Dr. Strouse is shown handling various thermometers while talking with a colleague. The camera pans across several mercury thermometers.  

Strouse: One of the issues with mercury is that it’s a powerful neurotoxin. It’s dangerous to human life. So we want to come up with solutions that will help to remove that from the environment and since digital thermometers have really come a long way in the last 10 years, now’s an opportunity to take advantage of that technology that’s available.

Visual: The words “Greg Strouse, Physicist, National Institute of Standards and Technology” appear onscreen beneath Dr. Strouse as he speaks sitting in his lab.  Camera cuts to a close-up of a poster that reads “NIST Mercury Reduction Campaign” hanging on the wall above Dr. Strouse as he handles various thermometers while talking with a colleague.

Narrator: Ending a service that it had provided for more than a century, NIST stopped calibrating mercury thermometers in March 2011. While many states have banned or restricted the use of mercury containing devices in homes, many industries still follow standards that require their use for temperature measurements. Camera cuts to an industrial scene with smokestacks against a clouded blue sky.

Visual: Historical pictures of NIST scientists calibrating mercury thermometers switch to NIST physical science technician Dawn Cross performing calibrations and handling various types of electronic thermometers.

Strouse: For an electronic thermometer or a digital thermometer, you can have accuracies or uncertainties that are orders of magnitude better than that of a mercury thermometer. There’s sort of a cultural change and a regulatory change that has to occur. But from my point-of-view, it is sort of interesting to recognize that all of us carry smart phones as opposed to just old analog type based technology phones. And we very much got used to digital technology in everyday common place. The industry is lagging behind in converting over to digital world as far as temperature is concern and few other areas as well.

Visual: Dr. Strouse speaking in his lab. Camera cuts to an image of petroleum workers handling electronic thermometers. 

Cross: There were over 800 standards that needed to be reworded, restated, or even find an alternative thermometer for their apparatuses and we have a little over 200 to go at this moment.

Visual: Dawn cross sitting in her lab. The screen reads “Dawn Cross, Physical Science Technician, National Institute of Standards and Technology.”

Narrator: NIST has launched a new website that details the hazards that mercury poses to human health, describes alternative temperature measurement technologies, and has resources and tips for recycling mercury-containing products. According to Strouse, recycling mercury thermometers helps to reduce the total amount of mercury in the environment in other ways.

Visual: Camera shows several webpages from the new NIST website. Scene switches back to Strouse and Cross working in their lab.

Strouse: When you get rid of mercury thermometers, that mercury gets converted into use in CFLs or compact florescent light bulbs, and while there happens to be a very small amount of mercury in a CFL, that reduces the amount of energy that it takes to light up a room. And by reducing the amount of coal that we primarily use in the United States to generate power, then you effectively reduce the amount of mercury that gets put into the environment from coal mining.

Visual: Dr. Strouse sitting in his lab. Scene cuts to a compact fluorescent light bulb lighting up. Image of a power plant.

Narrator: Reducing the amount of mercury in the environment, lowering electricity bills, improving the accuracy of temperature measurements? Sounds like a win-win-win.

Visual: Falling mercury drop gathers together and floats up. Image of a utility bill. Cross and Strouse work together to calibrate a thermometer.

For more information

Produced by
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Public Affairs Office
June 2012

NIST Production Staff
Producer Leon Gerskovic
Scriptwriter Mark Esser
Videographer Leon Gerskovic
Production Assistant Sabrina Xaviar

Video footage and stills provided with permission by:
Shutterstock Inc.

The display of products and services in this program is for demonstration purposes only and does not imply an endorsement by NIST.