Mercury: Cleaning Up Small Spills

Need help?

Contact your local health department if you need help or if you have a spill of more than 2 tablespoons or 1 fluid ounce.

Call the Wisconsin Poison Control Center if you have come in contact with mercury: 800-222-1222

This information is to help you clean up small mercury spills, such as broken fever thermometers. The amount of mercury in thermometers is usually very small, but it can be enough to harm you.

Everything used during the cleanup procedure should be managed as mercury contaminated unless you are positive it has not come into contact with mercury.

Respond immediately to all mercury spills

Mercury vapors are dangerous and are easily absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream. 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 higher risk of breathing these vapors.

Cleanup process

Preparation

Clear the area

  • Do not allow people whose shoes have contacted mercury to take their shoes beyond the spill area.
  • Do not put mercury in the trash.
  • Do not put mercury or mercury-containing items in a burn barrel.

You should keep children and pets away to reduce the spread of mercury.

People who touch or contact the mercury should remove shoes and clothing and put these items in two sealed plastic bags.

Block mercury from spreading

  • Do not pour or allow mercury to go down a drain.
  • Do not wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine.

Mercury beads spread easily so place a barrier, such as kitty litter, sand, or towels around the spill area. Use powdered sulfur or amalgamating agent, if available. Amalgamating agents bind with the mercury, making it easier to clean up. Inspect floor areas that have vents or drains for any mercury beads; seal until cleanup is complete.

You want to reduce the spread of any mercury in the air to reduce any unnecessary exposure. If you can, turn off heating, ventilation, or air conditioning (HVAC) systems and seal the ventilation openings. Also, close the doors leading to the spill site and open exterior doors and windows of the room where the spill occurred. Place a fan in an exterior room window blowing air outside. When not occupied, seal the door with plastic and tape.

Gather cleanup supplies

Do not use a broom or vacuum to clean up mercury!

The filters in household and even high-efficiency vacuums will not remove mercury vapors. Instead, they will put more mercury into the air and contaminate the vacuum. If you already have used a vacuum to clean up a spill, carefully double-bag the vacuum, seal, and remove it from the building. Then call the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for assistance: 800-943-0003.

Many cleanup supplies are available from hardware stores. The following are some common household articles that can be used for an in-home mercury cleanup kit:

For pick up:

  • Eye dropper
  • Syringe without needle
  • Playing cards or index cards
  • Powdered zinc or sulfur*
  • Rubber squeegee
  • Plastic dust pan

* Zinc and sulfur will bind with mercury reducing the amount of vapor. Sulfur will turn brown on contact with mercury.

For storage:

  • Plastic container with lid
  • Tray or box
  • Plastic bags with zipper seal
  • Trash bags
  • Tape; wide, duct, or masking

For protection:

  • Plastic sheeting
  • Rubber gloves
  • Booties or plastic bags
  • Safety goggles

Wear proper protection

Protect yourself from getting mercury on yourself and your clothing. To do this, you should wear rubber gloves. If possible, place booties or use plastic bags to cover your shoes. This way you can remove the booties or bags from your shoes instead of completely removing your shoes when you leave the room. Also, wear safety goggles, if available.

Cleanup

Pick up visible mercury droplets

Use a bright light to find any hidden droplets. Then use a squeegee or index card and plastic dustpan to clean up any beads of mercury. You can use the card to gently push the mercury droplets away from any carpet, fabric, or porous surfaces and toward other droplets to combine them into larger droplets. Then slide the mercury onto an index card.

Never use a broom on a mercury spill because it will scatter the mercury droplets.

Place mercury into a plastic container

If necessary, use an eyedropper or syringe to gather the drops of mercury. You can use tape to clean up any tiny remaining mercury droplets. Place the mercury in a plastic jar or a small plastic zipper bag. Do not use a glass container since it can break.

Tighten each lid securely so that liquid and vapors will be contained, then place the plastic container inside a plastic bag to provide additional safety.

Sprinkle powdered sulfur or zinc

Powdered sulfur or zinc will bind to any remaining mercury. These materials are supplied in commercially available mercury spill kits. Sulfur can often be purchased separately from garden supply stores.

Apply over hard-to-reach areas, such as cracks and crevices to minimize the release of mercury vapors. Once used to collect mercury, the powder must be disposed properly.

After cleanup

Continue to air out the area

You want to completely air out the room or the area where the spill happened. Ventilate as much as possible to completely air out the area with outside air.

Set aside everything that may be contaminated

  • Do not put mercury in the trash.
  • Do not put mercury or mercury-containing items in a burn barrel.
  • Do not pour or allow mercury to go down a drain.
  • Do not wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine.

Package materials securely and label as "Mercury-Contaminated." Specific labeling and disposal requirements may differ depending on whether the spill occurred in a household or a regulated business. Contact disposal services in your area. For more information check out:

Consider removing carpet and other soft items

Carpet, rugs, and other soft items that had mercury on it may still be contaminated. You cannot vacuum these since vacuuming puts the mercury in the air, and breathing mercury is more harmful than touching mercury.

Things to consider include the amount of mercury that was spilled and the amount that was picked up. If all the mercury was not picked up, then you should think about who uses the room. If young children or pregnant women use the room, you may wish to think about removing the carpet.

Local health departments and spill response contractors may be able to monitor for the presence of mercury vapor on items, but private testing may be costly. When removing contaminated items, double wrap them in plastic trash bags and contact your local health department or Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for proper disposal.

Never burn or expose the mercury-contaminated items to heat, as this will spread the mercury.

Last Revised: September 30, 2019