General Information on Mercury Spills
This information is offered to help you respond to mercury spills. Most
spills associated with fever thermometers or other
small spills can be
cleaned up by following the guidance provided here. While the amount of mercury
involved with broken thermometers is usually very small, it can be enough
to in some cases, to produce unhealthy exposure to mercury vapor. Quick
response to any mercury spill is very important. If you have a large spill
(more than 2 tablespoons or 1 fluid ounce), or are not sure about the
hazards or your ability to respond, please contact your local health
department or seek expert help from the agencies or contractors listed
Elemental mercury is a heavy, silvery metal element that is a liquid at
room temperature. Liquid mercury evaporates at room temperature and these
vapors are invisible, odorless, and, at high levels, are very toxic.
Mercury vapors can harm the nervous system, cardiovascular system,
digestive tract, kidneys, and the development of young children. In the
home, metallic mercury is often found in thermometers, barometers,
electrical switches, and thermostats. Upon spilling, it will bead up and
spread readily. The amount of vapor elemental mercury produces is related
to the amount spilled, surface area (amount of beads produced),
temperature (vapor increases with warmer air), air flow and physical
disturbance of the spilled material.
You should respond immediately to all mercury spills. Even small spills
can, in some cases, cause high levels of mercury vapors that are unsafe to
breathe. Mercury vapors are readily absorbed through the lungs into the
bloodstream and are therefore, particularly hazardous. Mercury vapors are
also heavier than air and may linger in higher concentrations close to the
floor. Children who crawl or play in these areas are at highest risk of
breathing these vapors.
. The filters in
household and even high efficiency vacuums will not remove mercury
vapors. Of even greater concern, the vacuum exhaust will put more
mercury vapor in the air. The vacuum will also be contaminated. If you
already have used a vacuum to clean a spill, carefully double-bag the
vacuum, seal and remove it from the building. Quickly isolate the areas
as described below because there may be higher amounts of mercury vapor
- DO NOT use a vacuum to clean up mercury
- DO NOT use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the
mercury into smaller beads, further spreading it and making more vapor.
- DO NOT allow people whose shoes have contacted mercury to take their
shoes beyond the spill area. Further contamination of the building
may result. The shoes should be removed and protective foot coverings,
such as Tyvek booties should be provided.
- DO NOT put mercury in the trash. Mercury can be released in the
environment and will further impact human health.
- DO NOT put mercury or mercury-containing items in a burn barrel.
Vapors and smoke will be produced releasing mercury into the environment
and create an exposure risk.
- DO NOT pour or allow mercury to go down a drain. It can lodge in
the trap, and produce airborne vapor creating an inhalation risk. It
will also lead to mercury contamination of the wastewater system.
- DO NOT wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine.
Mercury may contaminate the machine and/or be discharged to the
environment in wastewater.
Note: Everything used during the cleanup procedure should be
managed as mercury-contaminated unless you are positive it has not come
into contact with mercury. The Department of Health Services recommends you seek advice from your
local county health department, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources or by contacting one of the
disposal references listed under Resources
Follow the links below to direct you to additional information.
PDF: The free Adobe
Reader® is needed to view and print portable document format (PDF)
Back to Environmental Health Resources
August 12, 2014