Mercury Spills What to Do

 By Neil Taylor

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a series of posts—during the month of September—focused on simple home improvement tips to help improve your quality of life and the environment.

It’s 2 a.m. and I’m sound asleep in my warm, comfy bed. Suddenly my cell phone rings. I obligingly answer it, “Department of Environmental Quality” (as I am the person on call tonight). This is the occasional life of a DEQ ‘duty officer.’

I have been a DEQ duty officer for 30 years. A duty officer is responsible for receiving the 24-hour notice of environmental emergencies from businesses, local health departments, or the general public who contact the Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation’s pollution hotline. I take the information and help ensure the appropriate agencies are alerted involved. The range of events makes the job interesting—anything from a 25-gallon spill of diesel fuel to a large-scale event like a tank derailment, chemical fire or pipeline rupture. The one type of event I have seen that can most easily impact a homeowner is a mercury spill.

Elemental mercury is used in a variety of devices around us, such as older thermometers, barometers, electrical switches, blood pressure monitors and Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs. Breakage of these devices can result in release of the mercury inside. Proper cleanup is essential to contain the contamination.

Here’s what I tell people NOT to do:

  • DO NOT vacuum where there might be mercury! Vacuuming breaks up the mercury spills into countless tiny beads that are then thrown everywhere. I have seen vacuums turn a tiny spill of mercury that may cost a few dollars to clean up, into house-wide contamination that costs thousands of dollars to clean up with the loss of furniture, clothing and personal items. What a tragedy.
  • DO NOT try and sweep the spill with a broom! You will likely break up the spill, making it harder to gather droplets.
  • DO NOT try to wash contaminated clothing! You will likely end up with a contaminated washer and dryer.

Here’s what I tell people TO DO if it’s a small spill:

  • DO remove everyone from the area where cleanup will take place. Shut door of impacted area. Turn off ventilation system. DO NOT allow or gain assistance from children. Remember to remove all pets, as well; and remove all jewelry and watches from your hands as mercury will bond with the metal.
  • DO an easy clean up of mercury spills from the following surfaces: wood, linoleum, tile and any other like surface.
  • DO throw away contaminated items with proper disposal if a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery, or other like surface. You only need to cut and remove the affected portion of the contaminated carpet for disposal.
CFL bulbs are less of a hazard, but when broken still need cautious handling and careful breakage cleanup. Energy Star has an excellent guide for homeowners with CFLs on cleaning up mercury spills.
Neil Taylor

For Proper Disposal of Mercury visit the mercury spill page. For better or worse: mercury is a part of our lives, so let’s keep its negative impacts to a minimum (and help me sleep better at night!). I have worked in the Division of Environmental Response and Remediation for 30 years. When I’m not responding to spills, I enjoy photography, astronomy and genealogy.



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