- What is mercury?
- How can I be exposed to mercury?
- How can mercury affect me and my family’s health?
- How should I clean up a mercury spill?
- What about mercury in fish?
- Where can I find more information (related links)?
- Information on large mercury spills.
- Information on small mercury spills.
What is mercury?
Mercury is technically a metal even though at room temperature it is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. It can be found in thermometers and some electrical switches and small amounts can be found in compact fluorescent light bulbs. Mercury has also been used in barometers, batteries, car switches, dental fillings, fungicides and some herbal and religious remedies. It also is used in gold mining. If not properly encased, such as in a thermometer, mercury can evaporate and release harmful mercury vapors.
How can I be exposed to mercury?
The vapors released by mercury pose the greatest health risk. When small amounts of mercury are swallowed, less than 0.01% will be absorbed by the body; however, when mercury vapors are breathed in, about 80% of the mercury enters the bloodstream. A few drops of metallic mercury can create enough vapors to cause a health risk. The longer an individual breathes these vapors the greater their risk becomes.
How can mercury affect me and my family’s health?
Mercury mainly affects the brain and kidneys. Young children whose brain and kidneys are still developing are more sensitive to mercury than adults. Whether the exposure is short- or long-term, similar neurological effects occur with symptoms intensifying as the concentration of mercury and the duration of exposure increases. Health effects of mercury may include:
- changes in hearing or vision
- memory problems
- lung damage
- increases in blood pressure or heart rate
- skin rashes
- eye irritation
Unborn babies are at great risk of adverse health effects from mercury because they are in the early stages of development. Mercury in an expectant mother’s body can pass to the fetus and accumulate there. Effects to the unborn child include:
- brain damage
- mental retardation
- reduced coordination
- inability to speak
How should I clean up a mercury spill?
Mercury can be very difficult to clean up fully and is extremely hard to get out of clothes, furniture, carpet, floors, walls and other porous items. Many cleaning techniques spread the mercury out and create more vapors. If mercury is not properly cleaned up, it can remain for months or years and cause an ongoing health risk.
Go to Missouri Department of Natural Resources Cleaning up Mercury Fact Sheet for cleanup instructions for small mercury spills such as a broken household thermometer (about 1 gram), thermostat (about 3 grams), or compact fluorescent bulb (about 5 milligrams).
For larger mercury spills, please contact the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on its 24-hour Environmental Emergency Response hotline at 573-634-2436 for technical advice and assistance. Guidelines for cleaning up mercury spills both large and small can be found here.
WARNINGS ABOUT WRONG WAYS TO TRY TO CLEAN UP A MERCURY SPILL:
- Do not wipe with a cloth or towel. Mercury is not absorbent, so this spreads the mercury and breaks it into smaller pieces.
- Never use a household vacuum cleaner or shop vac to clean up mercury. This makes the problem worse by creating more mercury vapors and contaminating the vacuum.
- Do not use a broom. This scatters the mercury droplets and makes them harder to find.
- Do not pour mercury down the sink or drain. Mercury is heavier than water and may get trapped in the drain where it may continue to emit harmful vapors.
- Never place mercury contaminated clothes in a washing machine.
What about mercury in fish?
In water and soil, microorganisms and natural processes convert mercury into methylmercury. Fish and other organisms can quickly take up the methylmercury in water directly from the water or by eating other animals or organisms already containing methylmercury. Once methylmercury is in the fish tissue, it may stay there for a long time.
Sport fish caught in Missouri waters are monitored yearly for several chemicals including methylmercury. Each year, the Missouri Fish Consumption Advisory is released disclosing the results of fish testing. In most instances and for most people, the health benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential health risks from contaminants.
Information on large mercury spills.
For large mercury spills, contact the Missouri Department of Natural Resources 24-hour Environmental Emergency Response hotline at 573-634-2436 for technical advice and assistance.
Information on small mercury spills.
For small mercury spills, refer to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources website on proper ways to cleanup.