Monday, April 12, 2010


"No wonder you're late. Why, this watch is exactly two days slow."-Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (1951)

The word “Mercury” can mean many things. It’s an unusual metal that is liquid at room temperature, hence the name “quicksilver” or hydrargyrum (“watery silver” in Latinized Greek) from which we get the chemical symbol Hg for mercury. Alchemists thought mercury was the First Matter from which all metals are formed. The element was named after the Roman god Mercury, known for his speed and mobility. It is associated with the planet Mercury, the fastest moving planet about the sun.

Ancient Chinese emperors thought that mercury was good for health and it was used in dentistry and medicine into the late 20th century, but now we know it is an extremely toxic heavy metal with an impressive list of side effects causing psychological, neurological, digestive tract, cardiovascular, and respiratory damage. The psychological symptoms associated with mercury poisoning are said by some to have inspired the phrase "mad as a hatter". Hat makers were repeatedly exposed to mercury while processing the felt used in hats.

One thermometer with just one gram of mercury can contaminate all the fish in a 20-acre lake (fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate mercury in their bodies). Over the last decade in the United States and Europe, the mercury thermometer has gone the way of the rotary dial phone and analog television: virtually phased out. Sales of mercury thermometers are banned in many states and the World Health Organization (WHO) is working to eliminate the mercury thermometer globally.

If you’ve converted to using digital thermometers at home, congratulations. But you still might not be mercury free. Many fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury, as do some home thermostats. If you break a mercury thermometer, thermostat, or fluorescent light bulb be VERY careful with the cleanup.

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 spreads around.

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

•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.

•Don't track it around on your shoes.

•Don't re-use any cloth or sponge that came in contact with the mercury, ever.

What can you do?

1. Clear the room of people, especially children, and pets. Do not allow children to help you clean up a mercury spill.

2. Shut off the heater or air conditioner. Open a window and allow the room to air out at least 15 minutes. If you have a face mask filter, wear it.

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. Seal the jar.

5. If the break occurred over clothing or bedding, the material should be wrapped up and “thrown away” as per local law.

6. Clearly label your storage container as "Mercury - DO NOT OPEN."

7. Waste disposal regulations vary by State; some have stringent requirements for mercury disposal.

Bottom Line

Don't do anything that would spread a mercury spill or cause it to become airborne. Don’t breathe it.


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