In 2013, the Minimata Convention was held to recognize that mercury is, “a chemical of global concern because of its long range atmospheric transport, the length of time it stays in the environment, its persistence in the environment from human introduction (mining, power plants), its ability to become concentrated inside our bodies and out and its significant negative effects on human health and our environment.
Minimata, Japan went through a devastating incident of mercury poisoning from fish due to human contamination in their coastal waters, motivating them to host 140 countries to control and regulate this unique metal.
Mercury is one of the most toxic and environmentally damaging elements we encounter in day to day use. It is a neurotoxin with potentially deadly affects linked to kidney damage, respiratory failure, disability and death.
Unfortunately, mercury is so pervasive that nearly all people have trace amounts of it in their bodies. This website has a good list of products containing mercury. http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/health/ehhm/mercury.html
Disposal of this liquid metal involves federal, state, and local laws. Most household objects that contain mercury have only a small amount, and can be safely dealt with at home, then brought to recycling centers or participating hardware stores for disposal. For any spill larger than a pea, a professional hazardous cleanup crew is recommended.
Cleaning Up a Mercury Spill
Leave the room while you plan. Do not spend time in areas where mercury has been spilled until you are prepared to clean it up. Close all doors, windows, and vents leading to other rooms of the building, and open windows leading to the outside. Let everyone in the area know that the room is off-limits, or leave a sign on the door. Make special effort to ensure that children stay away. Only turn on a fan if you can blow the air to an outdoor window that does not lead to another residence. If possible, lower the temperature in the room to reduce the spread of the mercury vapor.
Call a professional for large spills. If more than 2 tablespoons have been spilled, the spill should be handled by a professional. This is about the size of a pea, or the amount in one mercury thermometer. Check your local yellow pages or search online for “Hazardous waste cleanup,” “environmental engineers,” or “engineering services” in your area that you could hire. If the mercury was spilled outdoors, phone our local, state, or national environmental response team. In the United States, call 1-800-424-8803
Put on gloves, old clothing, old shoes and remove jewelry. Wear rubber, nitrile, latex, or vinyl gloves whenever handling mercury. Wear old clothes and shoes, as you may need to throw them away afterward. Because mercury can react with metals, remove all jewelry and piercings, especially gold. If you do not have a spare pair of disposable shoes, put your shoes in sturdy plastic bags and fix them to your ankle with rubber bands. A large spill may require professional-quality eye protection.
Sprinkle the area with powdered sulfur. If you find a mercury cleanup kit at a hardware store, the yellow powdered sulfur will bind with the mercury and turn brown to make cleanup easier.
Place objects and fragments in a puncture-proof container. Carefully pick up pieces of broken glass or small objects that have come into contact with mercury. Place in a disposable puncture-proof container or glass jar. Or fold all broken material inside a damp paper towel and place in a ziplock bag inside a second ziplock bag.
Bag carpet, clothing or other textiles. If the mercury has spilled onto an absorbent surface a trained professional may be able to help. All you can do is cut out the affected area and discard it in a double trash bag. Never wash this material, as it can contaminate your washing machine or pollute the water or sewage system.
Locate and gather visible beads. Use an index card, thin cardboard, or disposable squeegee to pool beads of mercury into one location. To locate more mercury, dim the lights and hold a flashlight low to the floor, looking for glints. Mercury can scatter quite far, so check the entire room.
Transfer the mercury with an eyedropper. Use an eyedropper to pick up beads of mercury. Slowly squeeze each bead onto a damp paper towel, fold the paper towel, and place it inside a ziplock bag.
Pick up tiny beads and shards. Small beads of mercury or tiny pieces of broken glass can be picked up with tape. Wrap it around your gloved finger, with the sticky side out, to pick up the contaminants and place inside a ziplock bag. Or, dab shaving cream onto a disposable paint brush and use the brush to pick up the mercury. Place the paint brush in the bag along with the mercury. Do not apply shaving cream directly to a mercury-contaminated brush.
Bag all contaminated clothing and tools. This includes shoes that walked over the contaminated area, clothing that mercury dripped on and any tools that came into contact with mercury.
Continue to ventilate to for 24 hours. Leave windows to the outside open for 24 hours after cleanup. Keep children and pets outside of the contaminated room.
Disposing Mercury Waste Legally
Seal and label all trash containers. Tightly seal all containers for safe disposal. Clearly label them as “Mercury Waste Disposal — Do Not Open.”
Check whether waste contains mercury. Many household products contain mercury. While these are typically harmless unless the product breaks, they need to be disposed of as hazardous waste, not in the regular trash. Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFL), Liquid Crystal Display monitors (LCD) on television or computer screens, non lithium button batteries in toys or phones, any object containing a silver liquid. epa.gov/mercury/mgmt_options.html
Search Earth911.com for a recycling location. search.earth911.com Enter the type of object you are recycling, and your city or zip code. Nearby addresses will appear that can recycle your mercury waste.
Contact the manufacturer. Some companies will take back their products for recycling. These include Lowes, Home Depot, and IKEA.
Contact a local environmental regulation office. If a local recycling center isn’t avaialable, try “environmental health department” or “environmental regulation office” online in your area for legal disposal requirements. Large amounts may be required to dispose of through a professional or government cleanup service.
- Be aware that cosmetics labeling especially mascara, lipstick and skin creams are not regulated for less than 1% of the product. Look for thimerosal, mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, and mercurio.
- Be aware of thimerosal in flu vaccines. The FDA is reducing it in vaccines but multi- dose flu vaccinations still have trace amounts as a preservative. Important note: more harm is caused from children getting the flu than from vaccine mercury contamination.
- DuPont, Monsanto and 3M have been fined in the past for mercury poisoning but many more have not. Our safety needs to matter to global leaders enough to jeopardize corporations and power companies who profit from public illnesses.
- Dental fillings have long been in the news because the silver amalgam contains mercury. Contamination and poisoning resulted from incorrectly handling and disposing the fillings. Consult your dentist if you have old or worn silver fillings or swelling of the gums (which may be an allergic reaction). They have many new options.
- Many of us became inthralled with mercury and played with it as kids. As you learned from the cleanup, it is important to eliminate its potential for any long term exposure.
- Let’s reduce our pollutants and keep our air and water safe. Even wilderness areas like the Adirondacks below tested high for mercury.