Mercury

Note: this information is about metallic or elemental mercury, not about organic mercury or mercury in fish.


What is mercury?

Mercury is a natural substance that can be found in the environment. At room temperature, metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white liquid. If uncontained, it can evaporate into a colorless, odorless vapor. Higher temperatures can cause greater evaporation.

For many years, this type of mercury was used in common products like thermometers, switches, batteries, jewelry, cosmetics and even dental fillings. Although use has decreased somewhat, many household and industrial items still contain mercury.

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What are the health effects of exposure to mercury?

Breathing mercury vapor may affect the lungs, kidneys, brain and nervous system. Signs and symptoms of brief exposure may include:

Chronic or longer-term exposure can result in shakiness, loss of appetite and weight loss, irritability, headache and short-term memory loss.

The health effects of mercury exposure depend on several factors, mainly the amount of spilled mercury and the length of exposure. Also, a person’s general health status, age, sex, family history, diet and lifestyle, and exposure to other chemicals may have an affect on whether the mercury causes an ill effect. Young children and fetuses are especially sensitive to mercury due to their developing organs.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency, mercury is not known to cause cancer in humans.

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How are people exposed to mercury?

People can be exposed to mercury by breathing vapors or touching liquid mercury. The most serious threat comes from the vapors of liquid mercury, which are easily absorbed by the lungs and can affect the brain.

When mercury is contained in thermometers or fluorescent bulbs, for example, there is very little chance of exposure. If the item breaks, mercury can be released, and the chance of exposure is increased. The small amount of mercury from a broken “fever” thermometer or fluorescent bulb is unlikely to cause health problems if the spill is promptly, safely, and properly cleaned up.

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How can I tell if I have been exposed to mercury?

Since there are a number of other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, it is important to have a doctor conduct a thorough examination and assessment, including a health history and any appropriate lab tests. Blood or urine samples can be tested to find out if a person has mercury poisoning.

What should I do if mercury is spilled in my home?

Special mercury cleanup kits may be available through laboratory or safety equipment catalogs, or from your local fire department. Such a kit is the ideal and highly recommended way to clean up a minor spill on a hard surface like a tile, linoleum, or wood floor in good condition.

Make sure you follow the directions that should come with the kit. If a spill occurs on a porous surface such as carpeting or upholstery, you should carefully and appropriately dispose of the porous material.

Whether or not a mercury kit is used, cleanup should include the following:

NEVER ignore or sweep up the spill, NEVER use a regular vacuum cleaner to clean up the spill, NEVER pour mercury down the sink and NEVER wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine.

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Can I clean up a small spill in my own home?

You can probably clean up a small spill by yourself if the following is true:

If the spill involves a large area, has been spread around, is in cracks and crevices or other difficult to clean places, or is on a non-disposable porous item such as wall to wall carpeting or upholstery, we recommend that you consider hiring a contractor skilled in mercury cleanup. However, such contractors may be expensive. Check with your homeowner’s insurance to see if cleanup costs are covered.

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How can I clean up a small spill in my home?

The following is an easy method for cleaning up a small spill, such as a broken “fever” thermometer, on a hard surface. The information is adapted from instruction sheets produced by the Connecticut and New Jersey departments of Public Health.

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What if mercury has gone down the drain in the sink?

If mercury has gone into the sink, it is likely that some mercury may be caught in the drain trap. This means that you need to remove and replace the drain trap. Following are steps for cleanup.

Mercury can sometimes be recycled, and sometimes hazardous waste companies may be willing to accept certain quantities of mercury for a fee. Your local or state telephone “yellow pages” might have a listing of such companies.

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What if mercury spills in a school?

Every Vermont school should have a spill kit like the ones found in Lab supply and safety catalogues. If a small, incidental mercury spill, such as from a broken thermometer, occurs in a school, the spill kit can be safely used by school staff. The room should be adequately ventilated in a manner similar to those given for the homeowner. Duct work to and from the room should be closed off and children, pregnant woman, and staff with a history of health problems or sensitivity to chemicals should be kept out of the room until cleanup is complete. Call the Department of Health Indoor Air Program for advice on reusing the room.

When a major spill occurs in a school, school officials should call Vermont Emergency Management , the fire department, the local health officer and the Department of Health immediately. Consult with the Vermont Department of Education to see if there are any special procedures required of the school administration, teachers, etc.

Since mercury vapors in such a situation could be harmful to anyone, do not allow anyone not appropriately protected or involved in the professional cleanup (especially school personnel or children) to enter or walk across the affected area.

Shut off or block the mechanical ventilation system (supply and exhaust openings) in that room if the duct work is connected to other interior areas of the school. This will prevent or at least reduce the chance of mercury vapors spreading into other occupied areas of the school building. If possible and done in a safe way, open room windows to the outside and secure fans on the window sills to exhaust the air to the outside of the building.

Discovery of a past spill, or a spill on a porous surface like carpeting, can result in a potentially higher risk situation. In such situations, a professional environmental or hazardous waste type company will likely be needed for cleanup. Also, in such higher risk situations, the room should not be reoccupied until professional visual inspection and appropriate air testing is conducted. Schools are urged to seek the advice of the Department of Health in these situations and to keep the department informed of progress.

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What about a mercury spill in a company lab, industrial plant, or other work settings?

For spills in such settings, consult with your management or health and safety staff. Follow company procedures in accordance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations. If you, as an employee or employer, have questions or complaints regarding spills in such settings, contact VOSHA ( Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration ).

Are there additional steps I can take to lessen or eliminate the risks posed by mercury?

The most effective way to reduce hazardous chemical exposures is to use a “safer” chemical. The health and safety hazards of the substitute must also be carefully considered, to ensure that it is actually safer. For information on what products contain mercury, check the product label, the manufacturer, or the MSDS ( Material Safety Data Sheet ), which the school or company should have on file.

Where can I get more information?

For more information, visit our Indoor Air Quality Resource Guide.

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