Mercury in Our Environment

Mercury is a natural element that can be found in three different forms in the environment:

  1. Metallic (or elemental) – used for many years in thermometers, switches, batteries, jewelry, cosmetics and dental fillings. It's not used as much as it was in the past, but it may still be found in household items.

  2. Inorganic – used in consumer products and cosmetics. Cosmetics such as skin-lightening products may have “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury” listed on the label, or have no ingredients listed or no product label at all.
    Learn more about skin-lightening products

  3. Organic (includes methyl mercury) – found in foods such as contaminated fish and shellfish. Learn about mercury in fish

This information is about metallic mercury. At room temperature, mercury is a shiny, silver-white liquid. If it is not in a covered container, it can evaporate into a vapor you cannot see or smell. Breathing in the vapor can be harmful to your health. Higher temperatures can cause faster evaporation.

What You Need to Know About Mercury
What are the health effects of mercury?

Breathing in metallic mercury vapor may affect the lungs, kidneys, brain and nervous system.

If a person briefly came in contact with mercury, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Coughing

  • Difficulty breathing

  • A metallic taste in the mouth

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever

Over time, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Shakiness

  • Irritability

  • Headaches

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss

  • Short-term memory loss

The health effects of mercury depend on the amount of spilled mercury and the length of time that a person was in contact with it. General health status, age, sex, family history, diet, lifestyle and exposure to other chemicals may affect whether coming in contact with mercury will impact a person's health. Young children and unborn babies are especially sensitive to mercury because their bodies are still developing.

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

How could I come in contact with mercury?

You can come in contact with mercury by either breathing in mercury 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 coming in contact with mercury. If the item breaks, mercury can be released, and then your chance increases. The small amount of mercury from a broken thermometer or fluorescent bulb is unlikely to cause health problems if the spill is properly cleaned up in a safe way.

How do I know if I came in contact mercury?

The health effects of mercury can be similar to the health effects of other conditions. Blood or urine samples can be tested to find out if you have mercury poisoning. It is important for your health care provider to do a thorough health history examination and assessment.

How can I stay away from mercury?

The most effective way is to stay away from mercury-containing products. For information on what products contain mercury, check the product label, the manufacturer, or the SDS (Safety Data Sheet).

Mercury Spills

Because mercury is toxic, it is important to clean it up safely.

What to Do About Mercury Spills
What should I do if mercury is spilled in my home?
  • Open windows to ventilate the area. Use a window fan pointing to the outside.

  • Close off the room from other rooms in your house. Shut the door and close any air pathways, like floor or ceiling grates, that could allow mercury vapors to travel to other areas of your house.

  • Keep pets, children and pregnant women out of the room.

  • Contact your local fire department or the Health Department at 800-439-8550 for more advice on cleanup.

It is important that you:

  • Never ignore the spill.

  • Never sweep up the spill.

  • Never use a regular vacuum cleaner to clean up the spill.

  • Never pour mercury down the sink.

  • Never wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine.

  • Never throw mercury in the trash.

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

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

  • The spill is a small amount, less than one-quarter teaspoon or one small thermometer.

  • The spill is limited to a small area and mercury has not been spread around.

  • The spill is on a hard surface like tile, linoleum or wood that is in good condition.

  • The spill is on a small porous item like an area rug, a blanket or clothing that can be safely and appropriately thrown away.

You should consider hiring a contractor skilled in mercury cleanup if the following are true:

  • The spill involves a large area.

  • The spill has been spread around or is in cracks and crevices or other difficult-to-clean places.

  • The spill is on a non-disposable, porous or absorbent item, such as wall-to-wall carpeting or upholstery.

Contractors may be expensive. Check with your homeowner’s insurance to see if cleanup costs are covered.

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

An example of a small spill is a broken thermometer on a hard surface. Follow the steps below for cleaning up a small mercury spill, or watch a video on how to clean up mercury bulb or small mercury spill.

1. Prepare for the cleanup

  • Wear disposable gloves during cleanup and disposal to prevent skin contact.

  • Do not walk on the mercury or track it into other areas of the house.

  • Take off your shoes before you leave the room where the spill happened.

  • Put all waste in a zip-top bag and then close it. You will need several zip-top bags.

2. Start the cleanup

  1. Carefully pick up any pieces of broken glass and place them on a paper towel or tissue. Wrap or fold the paper towel, and put it in a zip-top bag.

  2. Use stiff cardboard or a rubber squeegee to gather all remaining bits of glass and beads of mercury.

  3. Use a flashlight to look all around the floor, into crevices, under bathroom sink pedestal, etc. for hidden mercury. The flashlight will reflect off the mercury beads and make it easier to see them.

  4. If more glass or mercury is found, use the cardboard to push it into the existing pile.

  5. Use an eyedropper to suck up the mercury beads. Hold the eyedropper even with the floor. (Holding it upright like a pencil doesn’t work as well.)

  6. Collect tiny mercury beads by touching the edge of the eyedropper to the bead and gently nudging the bead inside the eye dropper.

  7. Clear the eyedropper by carefully and gently squeezing the contents onto a damp paper towel.

  8. Put the eyedropper and paper towel into a plastic zip-top bag when you have finished.

  9. Use the sticky side of two-inch (or wider) duct or masking tape to pick up any remaining glass and mercury beads.

  10. Use new pieces of tape until there is no visible glass or mercury. Pay special attention to cracks and crevices in tile or wood floor.

  11. Put the tape in a zip-top bag when you are finished using it.

3. Finish the cleanup

  1. Place the cardboard or squeegee in a zip-top bag.

  2. Carefully remove your gloves and put them in a zip-top bag. Do not touch the glove fingertips or parts that may have come in contact with mercury.

  3. Put all the closed zip-top bags in a double plastic bag and tie the opening with a metal twist.

  4. Label the bag “Hazardous. Contains Mercury.”

  5. Continue to air out the room for at least three or more days.

4. Store and dispose of the waste from the cleanup

  • Mercury is hazardous waste.

  • Store the labeled bag in a place outside of the living area that is not accessible to children.

  • Contact your local solid waste district, alliance or municipality for proper disposal of spill cleanup debris.

Find out how to properly dispose of mercury-containing products

What if mercury has gone down the sink drain?

If mercury has gone into a 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. Follow the steps below.

Steps for cleaning up mercury in a sink drain trap

  • Wear disposable gloves and work over a disposable tray.

  • Remove the drain trap and pour the water and mercury mixture into a wide-mouth container with a lid.

  • Tightly close the lid of the container.

  • Seal the edges of the closed lid with strong tape and label it “Hazardous. Contains Mercury.”

  • Put the trap, disposable tray and your gloves in a double plastic bag.

  • Close and label the bag the same way you labeled the container.

  • Install a new drain trap.

  • Follow storage and disposal directions in the section above "How can I clean up a small spill in my home?"

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

For spills in the workplace, 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 the workplace, contact the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA).

More Information
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Vermont Mercury Reduction & Education Campaign (DEC)
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Basic Information about Mercury (EPA)
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Skin Facts! What You Need to Know About Skin Lightening Products
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