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TO:      Superintendents of Schools


FROM:     J. Duke Albanese, Commissioner

     Martha Kirkpatrick, Commissioner

    Department of Environmental Protection


DATE:      August 16, 2001


RE:            Removal of Mercury from Schools


Last session the Maine Legislature passed a law (PL 2001, c 373, 3) banning the sale of mercury and mercury compounds for use in primary and secondary classrooms. The Legislature took this action, in part, because mercury is a neurotoxin that can impair brain development, and young children are at particular risk. A recent report by the National Academy of Science suggests mercury exposure may cause learning disabilities in over 60,000 U.S. children each year. Similar legislation was enacted in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and is pending in other states.

Historically, schools have been a place where mercury and children have come together. The new law will help eliminate some of the opportunity for contact because it is aimed at keeping elemental mercury and mercury compounds such as mercurous azide, mercuric chloride or mercury oxide, out of the classroom.


However, the new law does not entirely eliminate the potential for exposure. Manufacturers can still sell products with mercury components, such as non-fever thermometers and barometers, and breakage of these instruments is a common cause of school mercury spills. Even small spills have lead to unacceptable human exposures and forced school closures during cleanup. Cleaning up a mercury spill from a wall-mounted barometer caused one Maine high school to shut down for two days last spring and cost about $20,000 to clean up.


Consequently, some schools have decided that keeping mercury instruments in the classroom is not worth the risk, and they have replaced them with mercury-free alternatives. When your school decides to replace any mercury-containing item, we urge you to follow their lead.


We also encourage you and your staff to check for mercury in your school and, if found, to arrange for proper recycling or disposal. For help in conducting a mercury audit, becoming a mercury-free school, or guidance on your recycling and disposal options, please contact Ann Pistell of the Department of Environmental Protection at 287-7703 (email ).


Two good resources for more information on mercury in schools are the web sites of the University of Wisconsin, ( and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality ( The first site also offers curricula that can be used to teach students about the problem of mercury in the environment.


Thank you for your help in tackling this problem. We welcome your efforts to educate young Mainers about the dangers of mercury, to reduce their risk of exposure to mercury in the classroom, and to ensure that schools are not a source of mercury emissions to our environment.