Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that can be found in many household items, including old thermostats and thermometers. But the most common way people in the U.S. are exposed to mercury is by eating fish containing methylmercury. Check out the fish advisories issued by the State of Michigan, and the guide to eating ocean fish issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Check out Washtenaw County's television interview on mercury in our environment and how to reduce our exposure to it.
How do I dispose of an old mercury thermometer or other mercury-containing device?
Thermometers or any other mercury containing device can also be dropped off at the Washtenaw County Home Toxics Reduction Center. The Washtenaw County Home Toxics Reduction Center offers a permanent drop-off site where residents can safely dispose of household hazardous wastes. Educational programs and information on safe, non-toxic alternatives to toxic household products are available as well. All services are provide free of charge to Washtenaw County residents. You should avoid buying items that contain mercury and use substitutes whenever possible.
What should I do if I spill mercury or break a mercury-containing device?
Mercury vapors are odorless and colorless. Due to mercury's volatility and potential for inhalation, spilled mercury should be cleaned up as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Watch our short video which illustrates the steps of cleaning up a small spill:
CLEANING UP A SMALL MERCURY SPILL:
Contain the spill and make sure it did not get on articles of clothing and shoes. Keep children and pets away. Ventilate the area. Get a flashlight, a piece of rigid paper like an index card, plastic container with a lid, eyedropper or syringe (without the needle), tape, rubber gloves, goggles, and plastic bags with a zipper close. Remove all jewelry from hands and wrists so the mercury does not combine with the precious metals. Put on rubber gloves and safety glasses. Inspect the spill with a bright light to help illuminate any hidden droplets. Clean up any metallic beads of mercury by pushing with the rigid paper into the center of the spilled area, keeping the mercury away from carpeting, fabric, or porous materials. Carefully combine and consolidate the mercury droplets. Slide the mercury onto the card and place the card and mercury into the plastic container. Use the eyedropper or syringe, or pieces of tape to oick up any remaining droplets. Place the container, the syringe, tape, gloves, broken thermometer, etc. and anything else that may have touched the mercury into the plastic bag. Label the bag Elemental Mercury Waste.
If mercury is spilled on carpeting, you will have to cut out the carpeting and double or triple wrap the section in plastic bags. If the mercury came in contact with clothes, dispose of them also. Never wash mercury-laden fabrics in a washing machine!
Call (734) 222-3950 to arrange an appointment for to drop off the mercury waste at the Washtenaw County Home Toxics Reduction Center. Mercury collected by the Home Toxics Reduction Center is sent to a commercial recovery facility that refines the mercury for reuse in industry in a regulated setting.
Never use a vacuum cleaner or a broom to clean up a mercury spill.
Do not dispose of mercury-containing devices in the trash.
Never pour mercury down a drain - it will accumulate in the trap and off-gas the harmful vapors!
Health Effects of Mercury
Mercury is a dangerous and potent bioaccumulative neurotoxin that can affect the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Short-term high-level mercury vapor exposure can cause nausea, shortness of breath, pneumonitis and bronchitis. Extreme levels can cause tingling sensations in the fingers and toes, a numb sensation around the mouth and tunnel vision. Long-term exposures can lead to personality changes, memory loss, stupor, and coma. In pregnant women, mercury can pass through the placenta where it can affect fetal development by preventing the brain and nervous system from developing normally. The elemental mercury found in thermometers can be converted by microorganisms in the environment into methylmercury, which is the most toxic form of mercury.
In case of emergency, call the Poison Control Center 24 hours a day at 1-800-POISON-1 (1-800-764-7661).
For more detailed information on the health risks of mercury, as well as detailed instructions on cleaning up a small mercury spill, visit the Michigan Department of Community Health's Mercury and Your Health webpage.
For information on preventing mercury spills and releases, including the use of mercury-free alternatives, see the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment's Mercury Pollution Prevention webpage.
For local information, visit Washtenaw County's Home Toxics Reduction Center webpage.
Listen to the Washtenaw County Solid Waste Program's interview on National Public Radio regarding Cleaning up CFLs.
- For additional information via the phone, call the Michigan Department of Community Health at 1-800-MI-TOXIC.