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What is a Mercury-In-Glass Thermometer?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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A mercury-in-glass thermometer is a thermometer that provides temperature readings through the expansion and contraction of mercury inside a calibrated tube. These devices were used extensively to measure temperatures in a wide variety of settings from the 1700s until the 20th century, when concerns about the health risks of mercury exposure led many nations to place restrictions on such thermometers. Medical use of these instruments is largely banned, and most that are still made are produced primarily for meteorological researchers.

These devices have a large bulb filled with mercury at the bottom of the thermometer, attached to a thin tube. As the temperature rises, the mercury expands, traveling up the tube. People can read the temperature by finding the mark that correlates with the height of the mercury. As the temperature falls, the mercury contracts, shrinking back down into the bulb. In extremely cold temperatures, this type of thermometer will not function, because the mercury itself will be frozen. With a maximum thermometer, the mercury will be held at the highest point until the thermometer is shaken, allowing someone to read the maximum temperature registered on the thermometer.

The developers of the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales both used the mercury-in-glass thermometer in their research, and created a system of calibration that allowed for the development of standardized temperature scales. To calibrate this type of thermometer, people use known temperature conditions, such as boiling water, to confirm that the device is reading correctly.

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The design of this thermometer is not intended to release mercury into the environment, and in fact, a very closely sealed environment is created inside the thermometer to avoid malfunction. When such thermometers break or are discarded, however, there is a risk of environmental contamination from the escaping mercury. While the amount of mercury in a single thermometer is not generally viewed as a major health risk, the collective contributions of scores of broken and discarded thermometers could be significant.

There are a number of methods that can be used to create an accurate thermometer, creating an array of alternatives to the mercury-in-glass thermometer. For medical use, people tend to prefer safer options to avoid exposing people to unnecessary health risks. Certain scientific researchers may prefer to work with mercury thermometers for various reasons, although care is taken with the handling and disposal of such devices in response to health concerns and environmental laws.

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robbie21
Post 3

@Kat919 - I don't know, to be honest. If you haven't bought one in a few years, it may just be mercury in there. I'm not sure that mercury fever thermometers are entirely off the market in this country. You can buy non-mercury glass thermometers but I don't know what's in them (one says it's a "safe liquid alloy") and they're not cheap. I guess they're a specialty item.

If I were you, I would do some research into how to safely dispose of a mercury thermometer and buy myself a nice digital thermometer. They're really very cheap these days, and no more holding it under your tongue for three full minutes. (My grandma used to make me hold the digital thermometer under my tongue for three full minutes, even after it beeped! She was a grand old-fashioned lady.)

Kat919
Post 2

You can still buy glass probe thermometers. They're not as convenient as the other options (I think they still take three minutes), but they're accurate and very cheap. I thought they had mercury in them--if I remember right, it's a kind of silvery liquid. I've been being super-careful about shaking them down because I imagine that's how they get broken. If it's not mercury in them, what is it?

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