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January 10, 2002
Phase-out of Mercury Thermometers Continues to Rise
    by William Baue

In response to shareowner action campaign, most large pharmacy chains are voluntarily phasing out mercury thermometers. The campaign is now turning to the health care industry.


Remember when kids used to break thermometers to play with the silver stuff inside, which wobbles on the border between liquid and solid? As it turns out, those kids exposed themselves to a hazardous neurotoxin: mercury. Mercury affects the brain and the central nervous system, and can cause delayed mental development and learning disabilities.

Mercury thermometers are the largest single source of mercury in municipal solid waste, and municipal solid waste combustion is the second largest source of mercury pollution in the United States,.

Last year, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) and Walden Asset Management decided to try to curb this dangerous source of pollution by launching a campaign to phase out the retail sale of mercury thermometers. HCWH is a coalition that promotes environmentalism in the medical industry, and Walden Asset Management is the socially responsive investment division of United States Trust Company of Boston.

As a result of the campaign, the top five largest pharmacy chains in the United States have agreed to the phase-out, according to an online status report report jointly developed by Walden and HCWH. The top five includes CVS (ticker: CVS--3,969 stores), Rite-Aid (3,730), Walgreen (WAG--3,140), Wal-Mart (WMT--2,963), and Eckerd (2,641).

On January 3, Walden and HCWH, along with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and socially responsible investment firms, sent a letter urging Kroger (KR) to join the phase-out. With 1,591 pharmacies, Kroger is the largest remaining retailer that has not committed to the phase-out.

"We look forward to a positive response from [Kroger]," said Kenneth Scott, a social research analyst and portfolio manager at Walden.

Walden will consider shareowner action against companies that do not commit to the phase-out, including Kroger and Cardinal Health's (ticker: CAH) Medicine Shoppe pharmacies (1,305 stores). However, if Kroger and Cardinal Health do comply, then the top ten largest pharmacy chains will be onboard with the phase-out.

With the consumer thermometer market well on its way to becoming mercury-free, Walden and HCWH are shifting their focus to the health care industry. Their goal is to virtually eliminate mercury pollution from the hospital waste stream by 2005. In addition to fever thermometers, blood pressure cuffs and esophageal dilators sometimes also contain mercury.

Walden initiated dialogue with HCA--The Health Care Company, which owns and operates approximately 200 hospitals and other healthcare facilities in 24 states, England and Switzerland. However, HCA did not agree to phase out mercury-based instruments, prompting Walden to file a shareowner resolution with the company in December. Walden is asking HCA to report to its shareowners by September 2002 whether it plans to phase out mercury-containing devices by January 1, 2005.

The resolution cites numerous compelling arguments to support its request. "According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), combustion of hospital waste is estimated to generate approximately 10 percent of airborne mercury pollution," the resolution reads. Furthermore, over 600 hospitals and clinics, including those of Kaiser Permanente and the National Institutes of Health, have voluntarily agreed to phase out mercury pollution from their waste streams by 2005.

Resistance to mercury phase-out campaigns may become tougher, if not impossible, if a recent bill introduced by Maine's Republican Senator Susan Collins passes into law. The "Mercury Reduction and Disposal Act of 2001" calls for a national sales ban on mercury thermometers. The bill also requires a nationwide collection program to ensure that the mercury thermometers do not reenter the market, but instead are disposed of properly and safely.

"This bill's strong bipartisan support reflects its common-sense, effective approach to reducing mercury exposures nationwide," said Mike Belliveau of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an affiliate of HCWH. "We encourage all members of the Senate to work for its passage now."

 

 
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