Archive for the ‘Cleaning up a mercury spillage’ Category

If you still use mercury thermometers or more likely blood pressure machines with mercury in them, there is always the possibility of an accident that will leave some mercury around. If you repair mercury blood pressure machines you will be using mercury to top them up so there is the prospect of a greater spillage.

I don’t want to scare people about mercury because it is poisonous, but you need to keep the whole thing in proportion. The mercury from one broken thermometer or even the contents of a BP machine is not life-threatening. It is just that it makes sense to treat it with care not only for your health but for the environment.

From time to time you may have to scrap off mercury blood pressure machines if for example, your hospital moves to using electronic ones. They may also stop using mercury thermometers and you are asked to dispose of the old ones.

Mercury gives off a vapour at room temperatures, this vapour is harmful and should not be breathed in. You should take care handling it and storing it.

If you have plenty of money and handle it often you should have a fume cabinet in your workshop and you can buy mercury fume sniffers. The sniffer an electronic box that draws in room air and tells you what level of mercury vapour there is in the room. We used to use one when there had been a mercury spillage in a room with floorboards or other cracks in the flooring, it would detect mercury in places you could not see and tell you if the levels were a hazard.

If you are scrapping off thermometers or BP machines this is the process.

In an ideal world, you should use a fume cabinet to prevent breathing in the fumes. You may find one in the hospital laboratory. If not do all your mercury handling in a well ventilated area or outside. Start by finding a large plastic tray with sides on it, a strong plastic container with a screw on top in to which you put your mercury, also get some syringes and some sulphur powder, sometimes know as Flowers of sulphur.

Do all your work in the plastic tray so the mercury is contained should you spill any. With mercury thermometers leave them whole, this way the mercury is contained. Should you be able to recycle the mercury then you can crack the thermometer bulb and put the collected mercury into the plastic container.  If you are scrapping off a BP machine remove the plastic tube that joins the top of the mercury reservoir to the cuff, unscrew the top and tip the mercury into the plastic container. The metal box can be recycled but first remove the tube and unscrew the reservoir. These last two should be safely disposed of because they will contain mercuric oxide, the black powder.

Add a little water to the plastic container. The containers below will do. Don’t get one that it too big because mercury is heavy.


When you put mercury into the container it will sink to the bottom and leave the water lying on top of it. This will form a barrier and prevent it fuming. Any mercury spilt in the tray is pushed together into one blob, use the syringe to suck it up.

What NEVER to Do When Cleaning Up a Mercury Spill

  •  Never use a vacuum cleaner or house brush to clean up the spill, if you have drops of mercury on a stone floor or a tabletop use a small painters paintbrush, a two inch brush will do,  to collect the drops together then either suck them up with the syringe or sweep them into a small dustpan or onto a bit of paper with your paintbrush.

If you use a vacuum cleaner you will contaminate that and fumes from the mercury will be blown out into the room. Note from me; I have never considered this before because the standard advice is not to use a vacuum cleaner, but considering that some vacuum cleaners use disposable bags I suppose you could put in a clean bag and then empty out the collected mercury afterwards. one problem might be that mercury might get trapped in the corrugations of the hose pipe or in the various connections o the machine. Anyway, I think it better all round if you did not use one. Seldom is the spillage so great that you would need to. Just a thought.

  •  Never pour mercury down a drain.
    The mercury can become lodged in the “P” traps or ‘U’ bend, if it does it will be safe in as much as it will be underwater and thus not able to fume. If you have done this unscrew the trap and remove the mercury.  Mercury can also pollute septic tanks or wastewater treatment plants.
  •  Never allow people who are wearing mercury-contaminated shoes or clothing to walk around the house.
    This will help limit the spread of spilt mercury.
  •  Never use a washing machine to launder clothing or other items that may have come in contact with mercury.
    Mercury can contaminate the washer and/or pollute sewage.
  • Clothing that may have mercury on it, Inspect any clothing carefully, hold it over your plastic tray and gently shake to remove any drops. If there is any doubt throw all clothing that came in contact with liquid mercury in the bin, this also applies to a carpet that has had mercury spilt on it.

How to Clean up a Small Mercury Spill.
(a broken thermometer, bp machine.)
Please remember that mercury is electrically conductive, if it has broken into an area with electrics in it or on to a circuit board, do turn off the equipment.

First, let me give you a warning. Gold. if you have a gold ring on your finger take care not to allow the mercury to come in to contact with it, put on a pair of gloves. If you do the mercury will contaminate the gold where it touches it and turns it a sort of silvery colour. To get rid of it if you do get it on your ring, warm the ring with a flame, warm it carefully you do not want to melt the gold. that should get rid of it. If it is on a small area it may well go in its own time, I got some on my ring, I put the ring on a mop buffer and polished it off. The moral is to put gloves on first.

Step 1. Isolate the spill and ventilate the area right away.

The person who will clean up the spill should have everyone else leave the spill area including pets. Don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out.

Open all windows and doors that open to the outside of the house. Close all doors between the room where the mercury was spilt and the rest of the house.

Turn down heaters, the warmer the room the more it will fume.

Step 2: Get the items needed to clean up a small mercury spill.

You will need the following items:
1. Sealable plastic bags
2. A torch
3. Rubber or latex gloves
4. Paper towels
5. A piece of cardboard or a small plastic card about the size of a phone or credit card.
6. A syringe or eye dropper
7. Powdered sulphur.

Step 3: Clean up Instructions

  • Put on rubber latex gloves.
    For a thermometer pick up any broken pieces of glass and place them on a paper towel. Fold the paper towel, place it in a sealable bag and seal the bag.  The bulb of the thermometer that holds most of the mercury may or may not have broken, if it is intact pick it up along with the remainder of the thermometer and put it in a strong plastic container. I always had two strong containers, one to keep liquid mercury in and another to keep bits of broken thermometers that still has mercury in it.
  • Clean up any beads of mercury. Use the cardboard or plastic card to slowly roll the beads onto a sheet of paper or a small dustpan. The syringe or eyedropper can also be used to collect the beads. Put the mercury into your plastic container that has the water in it.,
  • It is OPTIONAL to use commercially available powdered sulphur to absorb beads that are too small to see. However, if you think that it has been spilt into cracks in the floor you can sprinkle it over the contaminated area and rub it in, leave for 24 to 48 hours then brush it up and safely dispose of.
  • The powder does two things:

(1) It makes the mercury easier to see since there may be a colour change from yellow to brown.

(2) It binds the mercury so that it can be easily removed and it also stops it moving about. It helps to keep mercury that may have been missed during the clean up from vaporizing into the room. Mercury spill kits that contain sulphur can be purchased from laboratory, chemical and hazardous materials response supply manufacturers. Read and understand how to use the clean up kit before using. Note: Powdered sulphur may stain fabrics. Also, when using powdered sulphur, avoid breathing in the powder as it can be moderately toxic.

Step 4: Look for mercury that may have been missed during the clean up.

  • Take a torch, hold it at a low angle close to the floor in a darkened room, and look for additional glistening beads of mercury that may be sticking to the surface or in small cracks. Note: Mercury can move surprising distances on hard and flat surfaces, so be sure to carefully inspect the entire room when you are searching.

Step 5: Remove contaminated carpet and throw away.

  • Place outside in a safe place until rubbish is picked up.

Step 6: Remove mercury from shoes, clothing, and skin.

  • If mercury had touched your skin, shoes or clothing, make sure there is no obvious mercury on clothing or on your shoes. On the whole, it will fall to the floor but you may have to check in a pocket if, as once happened to me, a thermometer had broken in a nurses uniform pocket.

Step 7: Properly dispose of contaminated clean up materials.

  • Place all materials used in the clean up, including gloves, in a rubbish bag. Place the sealable bags that contain contaminated items into the rubbish bag. Close and seal the rubbish bag and place it in a safe place outside.

Following the spill

Keep the area well ventilated to the outside (i.e., windows open and fans in exterior windows running) for at least 24 hours after cleaning up the spill. Continue to keep pets and children out of the clean up area. If anyone gets sick, call a doctor.

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