Traditional mercury thermometers, for decades the parents' standby, are being banned in the US as dangerous to children and the environment. Several states and cities are prohibiting their sale and the country's hospitals are beginning to phase them out.

Traditional mercury thermometers, for decades the parents' standby, are being banned in the US as dangerous to children and the environment. Several states and cities are prohibiting their sale and the country's hospitals are beginning to phase them out.

Though British authorities have yet to investigate the issue, the American Hospital Association has signed an agreement with the US Environment Protection Agency "virtually to eliminate mercury containing waste" and, as a result, scores of hospitals around the country are abandoning their old thermometers.

Meanwhile, Boston City Council voted unanimously last week to ban the sale of the thermometers, long seen to be as wholesome and comforting as chicken soup and warm blankets. That city joins San Francisco, Duluth, Minnesota, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the state of New Hampshire, among those which have already banned them, while Massachusetts is considering doing so.

The moves follow growing alarm at the hazards of mercury, a highly toxic metal which affects the brain and nervous system. Thermometers are safe while intact, but if they break and the mercury spills out it will slowly evaporate causing, experts say, potentially dangerous levels in indoor air.

Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of 200 organisations that is spearheading the campaigning against the thermometers, say they can be just as dangerous after they are thrown away. They then end up in rubbish tips, where the mercury can contaminate groundwater, or are incinerated with other waste, causing air pollution.

Partly as a result, lakes all over the US have been poisoned by the toxic metal. The mercury in a single thermometer, says the organisation, is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake containing five million gallons of water, and all the fish in it.

Thirty-nine American states are now urging people, especially pregnant women, not to eat fish from at least some of their waters. All the lakes in Massachusetts, and 700 lakes and rivers in Minnesota, for example, are covered by such warnings.

The prestigious National Academy of Scientists has estimated that 60,000 American children may develop neurological problems or learning disabilities each year because their mothers ate mercury contaminated fish during pregnancy.

Manufacturers and retailers across the country have pledged to stop making or selling the thermometers and cities from Minneapolis to Washington DC have organised exchanges where people can bring their old thermometers and be given mercury-free ones instead.

Launching the "Mercury-free DC" campaign - which combined thermometer exchanges at the city fire stations with the pledge by the majority of its hospitals to stop using mercury ones - Robert Malson, the chief executive officer of its Hospital Association said: "As we have learned about the environmental and human health risks of mercury, and about the availability of alternatives, we have come to understand the need to phase out the use of this potentially harmful substance."

The British Medical Association said it had never discussed the issue of mercury thermometers, while the Department of Health was unable to comment.

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