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How to Dispose of Mercury

Safe Mercury Disposal

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This is what pure mercury looks like.

This is what pure mercury looks like. If you break a mercury thermometer, you might see the mercury. The metal is present in fluorescent bulbs, even though you probably won't see it.

Bionerd, Creative Commons License
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 paer 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.

Cleaning up a broken mercury thermometer is somewhat more involved, so I'll post those instructions separately.

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