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Mercury Spill Cleanup – Preventing the Spread of the Toxin

Posted January 21, 2023 by Mike Lewis under Tips

Mercury Spill Cleanup – Preventing the Spread of the Toxin

What is Mercury?

Mercury is a heavy, silvery liquid metal that is used in various products and industrial processes. It is highly toxic, especially when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Mercury can cause neurological damage and other serious health effects if people are exposed to high levels over long periods.

Mercury is persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain. Spills and improper disposal of products containing mercury can contaminate soil, water, and air. Preventing the spread of mercury during cleanup is critical to limiting exposure and environmental contamination.

Dangers of Mercury Exposure

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent damage to the brain, kidneys, and developing fetuses. High doses can be fatal. Even small amounts of mercury vapor can be harmful, especially to children and pregnant women.

Some effects of mercury poisoning include:

  • Impaired cognitive thinking, memory, and fine motor skills
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Fingernails falling out
  • Kidney dysfunction
  • Birth defects

Fetuses and young children are most vulnerable to mercury’s toxic effects because their nervous systems are still developing. Pregnant women and women planning pregnancy should avoid mercury exposure.

Sources of Mercury Spills

Some common sources where mercury spills can occur:

  • Broken mercury thermometers or thermostats – These devices contain hundreds of grams of liquid mercury. Cracks can release the mercury.
  • Older gas meters – Some antique meters used liquid mercury. Removal or damage can cause spills.
  • Industrial equipment and processes – Manufacturing and chemical plants may utilize mercury. Leaks and spills can happen.
  • Dental offices – Amalgam fillings contain mercury. Improper handling of unused amalgam can cause contamination.
  • Laboratories – Labs use liquid mercury for various experiments and applications. Breakage or mishandling of mercury stocks can lead to spills.
  • Fluorescent light bulbs – Broken CFLs and fluorescent tubes release mercury vapor.

Preventing Spread Upon a Spill

When a mercury spill occurs, it is crucial to contain the mercury and prevent further environmental dispersion. Some key steps include:

  • Ventilate the area – Open windows and use fans to circulate air. This will dilute mercury vapors.
  • Isolate the spill area – Clear everyone from the immediate area, especially children and pregnant women. Place warning signs.
  • Avoid direct contact – Do not touch spilled mercury with bare hands. Wear proper gloves, shoes, and protective clothing.
  • Avoid spreading – Pouring water on mercury can spread it further. Do not let people walk around in contaminated areas.
  • Remove small beads – Use stiff paper or cardboard to scoop up mercury droplets. Sequester them in plastic bags or containers.
  • Use specialty vacuum cleaners – Regular vacuums will spread mercury vapors. Use HEPA filter vacuums designed for mercury.
  • Decontaminate surfaces – Use sulfur powder or other approved mercury decontamination products. This binds residual mercury.
  • Properly dispose of waste – Follow hazardous waste guidelines for storing and disposing of mercury-contaminated objects.

Professional Remediation

For medium or large mercury spills, hire certified environmental contractors to conduct thorough decontamination and testing. Steps may include:

  • Removal of contaminated surfaces – tiles, carpets, floor boards
  • HEPA vacuuming of entire area
  • Chemical stripping of affected surfaces
  • Ventilation system cleaning if needed
  • Testing of air, surfaces, dust, and debris for mercury residues
  • Repeat cleaning until mercury is below safe levels per regulations

Proper cleanup ensures mercury is removed from the premises without contaminating other areas. It prevents ongoing exposure and allows safe re-occupancy of the space.

Preventing Mercury Spills

Here are some tips to avoid mercury releases in the first place:

  • Substitute non-mercury devices when possible – digital thermometers, thermostats, non-fluorescent lights.
  • Handle mercury carefully and sensibly in industrial settings. Follow best practices.
  • Store mercury securely, with proper ventilation, secondary containment, and spill kits.
  • Label devices containing mercury like fluorescent bulbs.
  • Recycle old mercury thermostats and auto switches at approved locations. Don’t throw in trash.
  • Dispose of fluorescent bulbs and other mercury items at hazardous waste facilities.


Mercury spills require immediate, careful containment and cleanup to avoid health dangers and environmental contamination. Ventilation, isolation, proper equipment, and professional remediation when needed are key to limiting the spread of this potent neurotoxin. With the right precautions, mercury spills can be managed safely.

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