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It's important to dispose of mercury safely. (Femto/Elementbox04)Mercury is an extremely toxic heavy metal. Though you might not have any mercury thermometers in your home, chances are good you have other items that contain mercury, such as fluorescent or other mercury-containing light bulbs, or mercury-containing thermostats. If you break a mercury thermometer, thermostat, or fluorescent bulb you need to be a lot more careful cleaning up the accident than you might think. Here are some things not to do, plus recommendations for the best way to clean up after a mercury release or spill. You can visit the US EPA site for additional help in cleaning up after an accident involving mercury.

What Not to Do After a Mercury Spill

  • Don't vacuum up the spill or breakage. This will release mercury into the air and greatly increase the level of contamination.

  • Don't sweep up the mercury or broken glass with a broom. This breaks up the mercury into smaller drops, increasing its surface area so that more mercury gets into the air and spread around.

  • Don't pour mercury down the drain. It can clog your plumbing and seriously pollute your septic system or the sewer system into which your plumbing drains.

  • Don't wash mercury-contaminated clothing. This contaminates your washing machine, all of the other clothes in the load, and the water that is washed down the drain. If you use a clothes dryer afterwards you're releasing mercury into the air and essentially poisoning yourself.
By now you probably see a theme. Don't do anything that would spread the mercury or cause it to become airborne. Don't track it around on your shoes. Don't re-use any cloth or sponge that came in contact with the mercury, ever. Now that you have an idea of what to avoid, here are some steps to take.

How to Dispose of a Broken Fluorescent Bulb

Fluorescent bulbs and compact fluorescent bulbs contain small amounts of mercury. Here's what to do if you break a bulb:
  1. Clear the room of people, especially children, and pets. Do not allow children to help you clean up.

  2. Shut off the heater or air conditioner, is applicable. Open a window and allow the room to air out at least 15 minutes.

  3. Use a sheet of paper or cardboard to scoop up glass and metal pieces. Deposit the breakage into a glass jar with a lid or a sealable plastic bag.

  4. Use sticky tape to pick up the smaller pieces of debris. Drop the used tape into the jar or bag.

  5. While paper and tape should be sufficient to clean up breakage on a hard surface, you may need to vacuum a carpet or rug. Vacuum only after all visible remains have been cleaned up and then dispose of the bag or debris with the rest of the clean-up. If your vacuum has a canister, wipe it clean with damp paper towels and dispose of the used towels.
If the break occurred over clothing or bedding, the material should be wrapped up and thrown away. Check with the waste disposal regulations where you live. Some places will allow you to throw away broken fluorecent bulbs with other trash while others have more stringent requirements for this type of waste disposal.

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March 27, 2010 at 10:25 pm
(1) Arnold says:

Yes, I had a mercury spill at work. I had broken a mercury thermometer in a water bath. Although contrary to your advice, I did let it go down the drain where I caught it in a glass bottle trap (Mercury is 13 times heavier than water). Then I washed down the sink in the clean up process.

In your blog about mercury spills, sulfur is an adsorbent which reacts with mercury. I am surprised that your blog didn’t mention anything about it.

May 30, 2010 at 9:40 am
(2) Jacob Peacock says:

I’ve heard sulfur actually won’t effectively clean up mercury spills, the reaction is far too slow. I still keep mercury in sulfur lined boxes, but I’ve heard zinc powder recommended.

July 17, 2011 at 10:30 am
(3) sen says:

I’ve heard tin foil is useful for removing mercury?

January 4, 2012 at 4:06 am
(4) hazardous waste Long Beach says:

Mercury is very dangerous to our health that is why we should be aware of it. If there is any spill we should learn how to dispose it properly. Following those guidelines would be a very big help to everyone to ensure that no one would be harmed.

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