Chris Lancelot: Stand back, I've got a thermometer

The EU wants to reduce the use of mercury wherever possible on health grounds. So spare a thought for traditional UK barometer makers, put out of business at a stroke of a bureaucratic pen: they are no longer allowed to put mercury into new instruments.

There is no doubt that mercury can cause immense damage, as the phrase 'mad as a hatter' demonstrates - mercury compounds were once widely used in the felting of hats. Six years ago our PCT ordered us to replace all our mercury sphygmomanometers with aneroid or electronic ones - which we did, only to find they were much less accurate. Then after we had spent all that money, the PCT directive was rescinded.

Do you know many people who have broken a mercury sphyg? Neither do I. On the other hand, what about the mercury coming from crematoria chimneys when dental fillings are incinerated? This is currently responsible for 16 per cent of all mercury pollution; coal-fired power stations are another source.

Certainly it seems sensible to ban the unnecessary mercury in paints and insecticides, fit mercury filters in crematoria flues and cease making electricity from coal. We should also prevent the public from buying mercury thermometers: who hasn't broken one by washing it in hot water or banging it while shaking it down?

But don't stop doctors and nurses using them: I am sure a mercury thermometer is a great deal more accurate than the infra-red ear version. It also seems silly to use the potentially less accurate electronic or aneroid sphygs when the primary standard is the mercury variety.

The final irony is that while fussing over banning mercury in new barometers - and looking to ban it in sphygs and thermometers - the EU is positively encouraging the use of long-life light bulbs to help reduce global warming - and these light bulbs contain mercury. Crazy, or what? Especially as broken ones will undoubtedly be thrown into waste tips rather than being recycled.

I have long suspected that the EU bureaucrats who create such intrusively nit-picking and poorly thought through rules are stark staring bonkers. I can only conclude that they live and work downwind of a crematorium.

Dr Lancelot is a GP from Lancashire.

Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com

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