Get rid of those old glass thermometers

Lois Lee, MD, MPH works in Children’s Emergency Department Injury Prevention Program

Working in a busy urban emergency department, I often see children with injuries that could have been prevented. One infrequent but real hazard is glass mercury thermometers. Aside from the mercury, we’ve seen children injured by breakage of the glass — either while their temperature is being taken or when the child (or a sibling) is playing with them. This requires us to expose them to radiation from x-rays and CT scans to look for any retained glass. Some children even require minor surgery to remove parts of the thermometer (glass or wires) from their mouth, rectum or ear. It can be a traumatic experience for a young child to have these pieces removed.

Although the sale of glass mercury thermometers has been banned in Massachusetts since 2002, a recent study my colleagues and I published found the rate of injuries actually went up from 2004-2007, after an overall decline from 1996-2002. This seems to indicate that families still have these thermometers in their homes.

That shouldn’t be. Digital thermometers are fast and accurate, and the standard of care in hospitals. As an injury prevention specialist, an emergency department doctor and a mother of two young children, I would recommend appropriately disposing of any old glass mercury thermometers if you still have one, and buying a safer digital thermometer. If you are a clinician, please tell your families about the dangers of glass mercury thermometers — and that it is not just about the mercury.

One thought on “Get rid of those old glass thermometers

  1. I recall an incident when I was a child, in the doctor’s office, when my doctor said “bite down” while putting the thermometer in my mouth. Yes, I bit down and bit the thermometer in half! So, this is a real danger, which I am sorry to see still happens.

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