Mercury in health care

Health Care Without Harm has worked on substituting mercury-based medical devices with accurate, accurate, and affordable alternatives since its founding in 1996. In 2005 we took the campaign global and worked with health professionals, hospitals, and health systems around the world to advocate for and implement phase-outs locally, nationally, and internationally. This culminated in the signing and then 2017 entry into force of the Minamata Convention, which mandates a full phase-out of mercury thermometers and sphygmomanometers (blood pressure devices).

Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal used by people since ancient times. It impairs cognition and may be fatal if ingested, and it is harmful if absorbed through cuts and abrasions in the skin. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has designated mercury a chemical of global concern because it bioaccumulates in the environment, particularly in large predator fish, endangering the health of the billions of people who rely on a seafood diet.

For 20 years Health Care Without Harm worked alongside the health care sector to substitute mercury-based medical devices with accurate, affordable alternatives. Our work began at a single hospital in Boston and blossomed into a global movement whose goals were enshrined in a global treaty—the Minamata Convention.

Along the way, we worked with tens of thousands of health care professionals, thousands of hospitals and health systems, dozens of ministries of health, and several United Nations organizations. We’ve provided hands-on technical support, and documented the scientific, technical, and economic case for going mercury-free. 

During our campaign, we partnered with health and environment groups on every continent and helped move markets and policy at the local, national, and global levels.

The Minamata convention

On August 16, 2017, the Minamata Convention - a global treaty for the phase-out of mercury-based devices by 2020, entered into force. 

Negotiated over several years and signed at a diplomatic conference in Japan in October 2013, the Minamata treaty set a phase-out date by 2020 for most mercury-containing products—including thermometers and blood pressure devices, and called for the phase-down of dental amalgam.

On May 18th, 2017, the world took a historic step forward in the fight against mercury pollution as the European Union and seven of its member States ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury, thereby exceeding the 50-party requirement for the treaty to enter into force. On 16th August 2017, the Minamata Convention entered into force, obliging countries to no longer purchase mercury thermometers and blood pressure devices by 2020 and to seek to phase down their use of dental amalgam.

Between 2008 and 2014, WHO and Health Care Without Harm collaborated in a global initiative aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of phasing out of mercury-based thermometers and sphygmomanometers in health care and their substitution with accurate, economically viable alternatives. 

A component of the UNEP Mercury Products Partnership, the Mercury-Free Health Care Initiative achieved significant success in raising awareness among ministries of health, health systems, and thousands of hospitals on every continent that it is possible to develop and implement policies and procedures to make the switch away from mercury.

This work provided an instrumental input into the Minamata Convention on Mercury negotiations because it showed that substituting mercury-containing measuring devices in health care could be done/was achievable.

  • The treaty’s structures on coal-fired power plants and artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) —the two largest sources of mercury emissions—are relatively weak, creating a situation where overall global mercury pollution may continue to climb despite the global agreement. For more analysis on the treaty, see Health Care Without Harm’s views on the Global Mercury Treaty.
  • Lessons in Forging Global Change: A campaign to eliminate mercury thermometers and blood pressure devices that began 15 years ago at one Boston hospital blossomed into a worldwide movement that helped lead to an international treaty restricting the use of mercury. In this article published in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Health Care Without Harm’s Josh Karliner, Gary Cohen, and Peter Orris discuss the campaign and the lessons they learned about how to create large-scale social change.

Browse our resources section on mercury and health