Mercury is a silvery-white liquid metal found in a number of household items, most commonly in fever thermometers, cooking thermometers, barometers, thermostats, and fluorescent tubes and globes.
When liquid mercury is spilled, it forms beads or droplets that accumulate in cracks and small spaces. It can also soak into fabrics.
Mercury droplets vapourise at room temperature. Mercury vapours are invisible and odourless. Breathing in mercury vapours can be hazardous.
The amount of mercury in an item varies – for example:
- fluorescent light globe: 0.01–0.04 grams
- thermometer or barometer: 0.5–0.7 grams
- thermostat: 3 grams.
The small amount of mercury in these items is unlikely to pose a serious health risk if it is immediately cleaned up.
Most small spills can be cleaned up easily, particularly if they are on wooden, tiled, vinyl or stone flooring.
Mercury and its effect on health
The most important route of exposure is breathing in mercury vapours. Swallowing mercury or having it touch the skin are not considered to be important routes of exposure.
Short-term inhalation of mercury vapour causes coughing, breathlessness and chest tightness within a few hours of exposure. Short-term exposure of the eyes to mercury vapour may cause inflammation and eyelid tremor.
Long-term inhalation of mercury vapour may lead to damage to the:
- central nervous system
- oral cavity, including mouth inflammation, mouth ulcers and sore gums.
Mercury spills – cleaning up a small spill
If you spill a small amount of mercury, such as from a broken fever thermometer or barometer, you can safety clean it up yourself by following these steps.
1. Clear the room
- Clear the area of people and pets to prevent exposure.
- Open all windows and close internal doors of the room for 15 minutes before you attempt to clean up.
- Turn off heating to reduce vapours.
- Turn off ducted heating or air-conditioning to prevent vapours circulating to other parts of the house.
3. Don’t create more vapours
- Never vacuum or sweep mercury. You will generate more vapours and beads of mercury.
- You will also contaminate the vacuum cleaner and risk being exposed to mercury every time you use it.
4. Clean up carefully
- Take off your watch and any jewellery. Put on gloves to protect your skin, and wear old clothes that you can throw away.
- Shine a torch on the area to find the mercury drops.
- Use an eyedropper or syringe to pick up droplets. Use a pen or card to guide the droplets onto a piece of card.
- Use sticky tape to pick up smaller droplets.
- Carefully place the droplets into a strong plastic container with a lid.
- If the mercury was spilled over a drain or sink, check the plumbing – especially the ‘J’ or ‘S’ traps, for mercury.
- Keep windows open and ventilate the room for a further 24 hours. Air all rugs or mats outside for at least a week.
- Dispose of items that have come into contact with the mercury (gloves, eyedropper, pen, card, broken glass and clothing) into a plastic bag and place it in your rubbish bin.
- Don’t wash contaminated clothing in your washing machine. It will contaminate the washing machine.
- Don’t pour mercury down the sink. It will remain in the water trap and continue to release vapours.
- If a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away. In the case of carpet, the affected portion of the carpet should be cut out. These items are porous and cannot be decontaminated properly. This means that using them can release mercury vapours into the air.
Fluorescent light globe or tube – cleaning up a broken item
Breaking a fluorescent light globe or tube is different from breaking a thermometer because the amount of mercury is smaller, and the mercury is not as obvious. The bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury (about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen) sealed within the glass tubing.
If you break a fluorescent light globe or tube, you can safety clean it up yourself by following these steps:
- Ventilate the room.
- Scoop up all the glass fragments and powder. Use gloves to protect against cuts.
- Put all the pieces of broken globe or tube into a rigid, sealed container.
- Use sticky tape to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
- Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes, and place them in a glass jar or plastic bag.
- Continue to ventilate the room for 12–24 hours.
- Dispose of the mercury and any contaminated items in the rubbish. Don’t put them in the recycling.
Mercury spills – cleaning up a large spill
Some objects found in the home (for example, thermostats and pendulum clock counterweights) and some medical equipment (for example, sphygmomanometers) can contain more than two tablespoons of mercury. Breaking these types of items is considered a large spill.
Because of the large amount of mercury contained in these items, there is the potential for greater exposure to mercury vapour during clean-up activities.
If you spill a large amount of mercury, follow these steps to protect yourself. Note that you should not clean up large mercury spills yourself.
- Clear the area of people and pets to prevent exposure.
- Open all windows and close internal doors of the room.
- Turn off ducted heating or air-conditioning to prevent mercury vapours spreading to other areas.
3. Contain the spill
- Large spills should be dealt with as a HAZMAT incident – dial 000 and ask for fire services.
4. Clean up
- Large spills should be professionally cleaned up by an experienced cleaning contractor who specialises in hazardous chemicals (search the Yellow Pages).
Mercury hazards – more information
For more information about the harmful effects of mercury, call the Poisons Information Centre or speak to your local doctor.
To dispose of mercury-containing items (for example, spent fluorescent lamps), contact Sustainability Victoria or see the Australian Government Department of the Environment website.