Spill Response Guide: Mercury Metal

Potential Hazards

  • Small amounts of spilled mercury can be safely cleaned up by using the following general precautions:
  • Contact causes burns to skin or eyes.
  • Material is toxic.
  • May be absorbed through the skin.
  • Liquid generates vapor that may be harmful if inhaled.  Mercury metal has no noticeable odor or warning properties.
  • Vapor generation will increase with increased heat.

Basic Supplies

(See EHS Spill Preparedness and Response Training for additional information)

Materials

  • Suction device such as Pasteur pipette or syringe without needle
  • Mercury collection sponge and container
  • Card or scraper
  • Forceps/tool to pick up sharps
  • Flashlight Lab coat or apron

PPE

  • Lab coat or apron
  • Shoe covers (optional)
  • Splash goggles
  • Chemical-resistant gloves

Waste Handling

  • Zip-top plastic bags
  • Heavy duty waste bags
  • Masking or duct tape
  • Sealable container
  • Hazardous waste labels

Response Actions/Cleanup Methods

Spill Type – Small quantities such as produced by a broken thermometer.

  • Small amounts of spilled mercury can be safely cleaned up by using the following general precaution:
    • Avoid skin contact.
    • Minimize the disturbance of material during cleanup to minimize vapors; and
    • Concentrate on getting the bulk of the spilled material into a sealed container before beginning any additional cleanup steps.
  • Skin and eye protection are needed because mercury can be absorbed through the skin.  Double 4-mil thick nitrile gloves may be used.
  • Mercury vapors will go into the air at a very slow rate when the liquid is undisturbed (unless it is heated), so do not disturb the spill until you are ready to clean it up.
  • The cleanup procedures depend on the location of the spill and the surface needing to be cleaned.

Response Actions/Cleanup Methods

General

  • Stabilize the spill without contaminating yourself and isolate the area to prevent others from coming in contact with the spill and enlarging the spill area.
  • Keep mercury away from sinks and drains.
  • Do not touch or walk through spilled material.  Do not disturb it until ready to clean it up.
  • Determine if the surface is porous (such as carpet, upholstery, or fabric) or non-porous (sealed wood, vinyl, and linoleum). Observe the area for cracks, crevices or other places where mercury can collect.
  • Plan and conduct the cleanup.
  • Do not use a broom. The mercury will break up, spread, and generate vapor.
  • Do not use a vacuum!  Ordinary vacuums will spread the spilled mercury and generate vapor.  The vacuum will also become contaminated and will be considered hazardous waste.

Non-Porous Surfaces

  • Carefully pick up any broken glass.  Sharps such as broken thermometers that have contained or still contain mercury must be placed in a separate container and labeled as mercury-containing hazardous waste.
  • Working from the edge of the spill inward, use a card or scraper to push the mercury droplets together into a larger drop.
  • Aspirate larger droplets using a suction device such as a Pasteur pipet or syringe with no needle or carefully transfer the droplets directly into a plastic container with a sealable lid (screw-top vial, empty plastic jar, film canister, etc.).
  • Use the suction device to get material out of cracks.
  • Pieces of masking tape or duct tape may be used to pick up tiny droplets.
  • An anti-static spray may help to release tiny droplets.
  • Use a flashlight in reduced-light areas to detect missed mercury.  Scan parallel to the floor.
  • A mercury sponge may be used to take up small amounts of material on flat surfaces.  Follow directions included with the kit.
  • Commercial mercury-absorbent powder may be used to amalgamate remaining residue.  Sprinkle powder over area, spray with water mist or recommended activator, scrape into a paste, and wipe up with damp paper towels.
  • Commercial mercury “wipes” may be used as a final step to remove residue from cleaned surfaces.
  • Place all trash, PPE, etc, into a zip-tip bag or a plastic waste bag. Double bag and secure, then place into a box.  Seal the box and affix a hazardous waste label identifying the material as “mercury spill debris.”

Porous Surfaces

  • Contaminated items should be disposed of as hazardous waste.
  • Affected area of a carpet may be cut out and replaced.
  • Seek advice from EHS staff if mercury is spilled on other porous surfaces.

Factors That Can Complicate Spill Response

  • Heated spills can be an inhalation hazard.  If spilled in hot equipment, leave area and return when equipment is cool.
  • Seek advice from EHS if spills larger in quantity than the amount in a broken mercury thermometer occur.
  • Dimpled or uneven surfaces can increase the difficulty of collecting droplets.
  • For spills in hard-to-reach areas such as behind cabinets, consult with EHS.
  • Do not use a vacuum cleaner because it will become contaminated and will be considered hazardous waste.  Vacuuming will also cause the mercury to spread and exhaust mercury vapor into the air.