MERCURY (from thermometers)

An exploration by Christi Geisinger

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal, which has several forms. The metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. If heated, it is a colorless, odorless gas. Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or "salts," which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. Mainly small organisms in the water and soil produce the most common one, methyl mercury. More mercury in the environment can increase the levels of methyl mercury that these small organisms make. Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda and used in thermometers, dental fillings, and batteries. Mercury salts are used in skin-lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments.

Appropriate Handling
Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs. Do not vacuum up spilled mercury, because it will vaporize and increase exposure.  If a large amount of mercury has been spilled, contact your health department. Teach children not to play with shiny,
silver liquids. Properly dispose of older medicines that contain mercury.  Keep all mercury-containing medicines away from children. Pregnant women and children should keep away from rooms where liquid mercury has been used.

What if you have a Broken Thermometer and Similar Materials?

In the event that a thermometer, manometer or similar mercury-containing device breaks, proceed as follows:

  1. Put on a pair of gloves and eye protection.
  2. Pick up the broken glass or debris and place in a puncture-resistant container.
  3. Clean up any remaining mercury by begging to pick up the droplets.  Use an index card or scraper to consolidate the droplets, and pick up the pool using a pipette, syringe or vacuum pump.  Do not use the house vacuum system without a charcoal filter trap.  Small droplets can be picked up with adhesive tape or wet paper towels. Commercial products such as sponges and powders may also be used.  The sponges are typically not very effective.  Sulfur is not a very effective means for cleaning up mercury
  4. Place the mercury in a glass or plastic jar or a sturdy plastic bag.  Only add visibly contaminated debris.  Seal the bag and affix a label identifying the material as "mercury spill debris".
  5. Follow the mercury disposal procedures outlined below.

Please make sure to minimize the amount of debris involved.  If gloves or other debris does not visibly contain mercury, they do not need to be included with the other waste. Consider replacing your mercury thermometers with non-mercury or digital thermometers.  Fisher Scientific and Lab Safety Supply offer a range of non-mercury thermometer options.

Disposal Procedures

  1. Collect mercury in a sealable container.  Place broken thermometers or similar materials in a sealable plastic bag or plastic or glass jar.
  2. Label the container "WASTE MERCURY".
  3. Call or e-mail to notify your waste management facility in your area to obtain further instructions as each town may handle it differently.
  4. Keep the material in your home, laboratory, or work area until it is picked up or until you bring it to a collection point, as instructed.

Submitted to and posted by Anthony Benoit
May 15, 2001

Top | Back | Explorations | ENV 1100