Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil. Most of us are familiar with pure mercury - a liquid metal, sometimes called ‘quicksilver’ that is traditionally used to make products like thermometers, switches, and some light bulbs. Mercury cannot be destroyed, and because of potential health effects, breaking mercury products, spilling mercury, or improper treatment and disposal of products containing mercury can be a health hazard.
“Most people don’t realize that there are specific ways to clean up even a small amount of mercury, like that from a broken thermometer,” said Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) Toxicologist Stuart Schmitz. “When metallic mercury is exposed to the air, especially in warm or poorly-ventilated indoor spaces, it can be breathed in as a vapor where it can be absorbed by the lungs.” Several factors influence how severe the health effects are from mercury exposure, including the amount of mercury, the age of the person exposed, and the duration of exposure. Health effects can range from headaches and muscle weakness to respiratory failure, and in extreme cases, death.
Even a small mercury spill, like that from a broken thermometer, requires health precautions be taken:
- Have everyone else leave the area; don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out and make sure pets are removed from the area.
- Do not allow children to help clean up the spill.
- Put on rubber, nitrile, or latex gloves to clean the spill.
- Use an eyedropper to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully squeeze mercury on to a damp paper towel. Place the paper towel in a zip lock plastic bag and secure.
- Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority, or local fire department for information on proper disposal of the bag in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
- Residents can dispose of household hazardous materials for no cost at their local Regional Collection Center. To find yours, visit www.SafeSmartSolutions.org.
- Keep the area well-ventilated to the outside for at least 24 hours after the cleanup.
For spills greater than one thermometer in size, contact the Iowa Department of Natural Resources 24-hour Emergency Response Team at (515) 281-8694.
For more information on cleaning up a small mercury spill, visit www.iowapoison.com/iapoison/pdfs/IA_MercuryCleanUp.pdf.
Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) also contain mercury and there are guidelines for cleaning up broken bulbs, disposing of, or recycling them. For more information, visit www.epa.gov/cfl/cflrecycling.html#whererecycle.
For more information on mercury, and additional details on proper safety measures, visit www.epa.gov/hg/spills/index.htm#thermometer.