What To Do When Mercury Hits The Floor

If you break a thermometer or compact fluorescent light bulb, you’re suddenly dealing with a contamination hazard. Cleanup requires more care than simply sweeping it up and throwing it away, and you need to be thorough in order to avoid being poisoned.

A Ph.D writing at About.com tells you how to clean up a mercury mess with minimal risk.

The post starts by telling you what not to do. Immediate vacuuming, sweeping and washing contaminated clothing are no-nos, because those actions spread the substance rather than contain it.

What you should do is clear the room of others, shut off the air conditioner or heater to stifle air circulation and scoop up the waste with paper or cardboard. Use the sticky side of tape to pick up smaller pieces and only vacuum after you’ve cleared up any visible pieces. Afterward, clean your vacuum thoroughly.

If you feel any negative effects after your clean-up job is done, seek medical attention.

How to Dispose of Mercury [About.com]

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  1. Dont lump me into your 99%! says:

    Ths whl ths s s vr hypd. Sck t p, nd stp bng bb.

    • pop top says:

      Yeah, mercury poisoning is totally easy to get over and isn’t dangerous at all!

      • Dont lump me into your 99%! says:

        Well I am not saying to feed it to your kids or animals, but just sweep it up, dispose of properly, no need for hazmat suits and contamination tents around the room.

        • pop top says:

          I don’t see any mention of hazmat suits or contamination tents, and it specifically says not to sweep it up until you’ve contained the mercury. It’s not a harmless substance and even a minute amount can be dangerous. Why suggest to others to be so cavalier about their health?

          • catskyfire says:

            Because a lot of us used to play with it as kids, if not actually played with it in a classroom.

            • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

              I’m also old enough to have played with it in school but it still doesn’t make it a good idea to not take basic precautions with it now. It’s the same thing with solvents and various other chemicals around the house. This kind of cumulative exposure has a way of catching up with you eventually.

          • jasvll says:

            You still use lead water pipes, too?

          • Kate says:

            I dunno, but I’ve probably played with several dozen broken thermometer contents since I was a kid and I’ve never heard of bad effects on anyone from them.

            Maybe I was supposed to be a super genius.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:
      • GrayMatter says:

        A lot of confusion is around.

        MERCURY COMPOUNDS are really, really toxic. Hatters did not add metallic mercury to their hats.

        METALLIC MERCURY (the stuff you see in the picture) is not as toxic by a long shot. But, it can react with air and the like, and under certain conditions will form mercury compounds. That is why the need to clean up metallic mercury.

        • Yacko says:

          It also evaporates into mercury vapor and that isn’t a good thing, although a very small amount can be cleared by sucking air out of the room with a fan to the outdoors. When I say small, I nean a single drop 1/8 inch diameter or less that may have splashed into tiny hard to gather droplets.

      • Rifter says:

        I’m curious Loias… did you read the article? Mad as a hatter comes from prolonged… as in VERY prolonged exposure. Not the miniscule amount in a light bulb or thermometer. My grandfather used to use it to collect gold dust when panning for gold. They would then boil it, and reform the mercury, while leaving behind the gold. (Those fumes were EXTREMELY deadly, so it was done outdoors. Mercury is not the boogy man, just don’t be stupid around it

        • rpjs says:

          Back in the dim and distant past (the 1980s), in my fair and beloved homeland, the United Kingdom, I did have a physics teacher who became very ill from mercury poisoning and ended up taking early retirement because of it.

          However, this was because he’d been subject to *years* of low-level mercury poisoning, because of spilt mercury in the physics classrooms he worked in. This may have been due to him liking to demonstrate apparatus like the Barlow’s Wheel. This is a very early form of electric motor that consists of a star-shaped wheel, the bottom-most points of which pass through a little trough of mercury. Connect a current to the wheel and the mercury and the wheel spins.

          And flicks little blobs of mercury all over the classroom.

          So yes, the Safety Elfs[1] may have a point, but it really does take years and years of exposure to be a problem.

          [1] As in “Sorry guv’nor, can’t let you do that. ‘Ealth and Safety, see.”

        • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

          The point was it’s not something to take lightly, even if it’s also not something to take too seriously.

          Any exposure is bad, regardless the “level” of bad. The real problem is they really don’t know how you the individual will react to any exposure over the long-term, they only know on average what different levels of exposure cause.

      • Cat says:

        I counter your link with this link:
        http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/cfl.asp

      • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:
        • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

          Any exposure is bad exposure. The point is to avoid it, not to panic and call the CDC when you break a ligh bulb.

          Treat it seriously.

        • teamplur says:

          Dimethyl Mercury (an organic mercury compound) is so toxic that a chemistry professor spilled just a couple drops on her glove and she was dead in a few months. the compound passed right thru the glove and into her skin. This happend like a year ago or so. No way i’m gonna look for the article right now

    • Cat says:

      I besmembr playn wif merkury as a kid, and I not suffer no drain bamage.

  2. clippy2.0 says:

    Could have summed it up as “Move your mother in law into that room, seal the doors and windows, treat as a zombie”

  3. Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

    I make silver pennies with my spilled mercury.

  4. Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

    Oh noes!

    …Are people even aware of how little mercury is actually in a florescent bulb?

    • pop top says:

      Not to mention that mercury thermometers are incredibly rare in homes now.

      • mike says:

        Not as rare as you might think. I replaced my thermostat in my house and it was using the original thermostat. It had mercury in it. I had to take it to the county landfill to dispose of it properly.

        • Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

          That’s not a thermometer though; that’s a tilt-switch.

        • pop top says:

          Thermostat != thermometer

          • IphtashuFitz says:

            It’s still a source of mercury, and most older thermometers that use mercury switches in them hold significantly more mercury than either CFL’s or thermometers, so if you manage to break that then you do have more of a problem to deal with.

      • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

        Just about every house on my block has a mercury thermometer on their back porch. It’s not really an item that ever needs to be replaced unless the numbers get too difficult to read.

        • who? says:

          Are you sure? They stopped using mercury in thermometers in 1974.

          The houses in my neighborhood are considerably older than that, but with people buying and selling and moving around, there would be very few thermometers still hanging around from then.

          • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

            Yes, pretty much every house has the same Sears thermometer from the same era. I’ve always assumed they were part of the house kit, since they’re so common here. Our house has two of them and they both work fine. I can’t imagine any scenario where they would require changing, unless they’re hit with a baseball or accidentally with a shovel.

            • who? says:

              As long as you don’t break them, there shouldn’t be a problem. Even if you do break it, it’s outdoors, not in a confined space.

              We lost our last outdoor thermometer (not mercury) when we had a new roof put on. In the process of stripping the old roof, the roofers knocked the thermometer off the wall.

              • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

                I didn’t say anything about it being a problem, just that they’re still fairly common in older neighborhoods.

          • LanMan04 says:

            1974? That’s not true. I was born in 1980 and my Mom brought home several thermometers from the hospital that were mercury. She still has them.

            Including one with a red end on it so you knew it was the anal thermometer and to not use it elsewhere!

          • kimmie says:

            1974? Wow, we had one growing up in the mid to late 80s. I remember when I dropped it on the floor and my mom cleaned it up. We so totally didn’t follow the rules above.

        • pop top says:

          Do you put them in your mouth?

          • Princess Beech loves a warm cup of treason every morning says:

            I think I still have a medical mercury thermometer… I will have to dig it up.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:
      • Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

        I still don’t expect it to be a problem, unless you make a regular habit of going all Gallagher on your collection of florescent lightbulbs…

        • iopsyc says:

          my friends and I used to “sword fight” with old fluorescent tubes. we must have smashed a hundred or more swinging them at each other. true story.

      • blueg3 says:

        Mercury salts and organic mercury compounds are very different beasts from elemental mercury. Hatters were exposed to the salt mercuric nitrate. Fish contain methyl mercury. Both are absorbed much more readily into the bloodstream than elemental mercury.

    • Difdi says:

      It’s enough that in some states, breaking such a bulb releases enough mercury to require a $20,000 clean up team.

  5. pikindaguy says:

    Did someone watch 30 Rock from a few weeks ago?

  6. Hoss says:

    “Don’t pour mercury down the drain. It can clog your plumbing and seriously pollute your septic system or the sewer system into which your plumbing drains.”

    Come on — who has that much mercury?

  7. lucyrickyalex says:

    I remember back in high school someone brought a little plastic baggie with about a teaspoon of mercury in it. The whole school had to be evacuated and the hazmat team brought in.

    Mercury. Serious business.

    • weave says:

      When I was in school (60s) we got a plate of mercury in science class and used to roll it around in our hands. Somehow I’m not dead yet.

      • dailyWAV says:

        In junior high in the mid 70s we all played with mercury in science class, watching it roll over various surfaces and our hands, etc.

    • axhandler1 says:

      When I was in high school (2000ish), our chemistry professor dropped a mercury thermometer during class, which shattered. He proceeded to clean it up using paper towels, cutting his hand in the process. Pretty sure some of the mercury got in that cut. Then he just took the paper towels covered in mercury and blood and dropped them in the open trash can at the front of the room. Nobody made a big deal out of it though. Far as I know, he’s still teaching.

    • Costner says:

      When I was in 8th grade (late 80s) someone dropped a mercury thermometer in the science class. Our science teacher used sheets of paper to sweep the mercury into a small pile, and then he scooped it all up and poured it into a container. I guess he had some experience doing this since several of those thermometers would be broken every year.

      Now he is dead. Don’t worry though, he didn’t die of mercury poisoning, but rather from Parkinson’s. Granted he had Parkinson’s when he was teaching science class which made cleaning up the mercury that much harder on him (his has shaked pretty good).

      So basically if I wanted to be dramatic, I could use a correlation or observation to claim mercury exposure leads to Parkinson’s or even Death. Sure that is ignoring causation… but people like drama right?

      • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDave‚Ñ¢ says:

        ::Customer walks up to Clerk changing fluorescent light bulbs.::

        You know, the insides of those has got stuff that can give you cancer.

        - So I’m told.

        Yeah. I had a friend that chewed glass for a living. in the circus.

        -And he got cancer from chewing fluorescent bulb glass ?

        Nah. Got hit by a bus.

    • maruawe says:

      That was a drastic reaction from a school, We used to play with it on our desk where the pencil holder was because of boredom in the classroom and at one time there was only one person who did not have some of the mercury and that was the teacher

  8. Plasmafox says:

    Or I could just stick to using Incandescents.

    Oh wait.

  9. j2.718ff says:

    I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen a mercury-filled thermometer

    • MrMagoo is usually sarcastic says:

      A couple years after our first kid was born (about 15 years ago), we bought a box of 12 on ebay. We had tried several electronic ones, but they just weren’t giving us accurate numbers. When it’s 2:00 AM and you can feel the heat from your child’s forehead, but the thermometer reads 98.1 you quickly lose patience.

      So we switched back to the old reliable types and didn’t have any more problems.

      • who? says:

        Even those were probably zinc, unless the box you bought was made before 1974.

        • MrMagoo is usually sarcastic says:

          Please leave me to my delusions.

        • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

          If it’s from eBay or a flea market, who knows how old they were or where them originally came from. R-12 has been banned for more than a decade and it’s still pretty easy to find where I live.

    • who? says:

      College chemistry lab in the 80′s. Zinc thermometers weren’t accurate enough for what we were doing, and digital thermometers weren’t available yet. So every chem lab had a stockpile of mercury thermometers. We were warned about the consequences of breaking one.

      • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

        It was the same thing when I was in college around the same era. My school had a massive stockpile of chemistry supplies from the 30′s through the 50′s and items were only replaced on an as needed basis.

    • DriveByLurker says:

      “I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen a mercury-filled thermometer”

      Your inability to remember events, or to convert short term memory into long term memory is a troubling symptom.

  10. Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

    I admit, between the picture, and the phrasing of the title, I thought ‘Mercury’ referred to some kind of Dubstep DJ I’d never heard of…

  11. sir_eccles says:

    Comparing the mercury vapor to the mercury in a thermometer, fail.

    • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDave‚Ñ¢ says:

      If heated/disturbed can’t it become vaporated? I mean, if the mercury attaches to dust, or you run it through a vacuum, I can’t see how it couldn’t become airborne, like asbestos.

  12. SecretShopper: pours out a lil' liquor for the homies Wasp & Otter says:

    What to do when the bodies hit the floor

  13. Warren - aka The Piddler on the Roof says:

    Things have sure changed since I was a kid. I used to go to a small circus in town where a magician would juggle balls of mercury while standing on the back of a three-legged donkey.. A pretty neat trick when you think about it. Actually…wait, it wasn’t a circus. It was my Uncle Melvin’s house. And he was standing on a ride-on lawnmower. It might not have been mercury… Could have been frozen pork chops. Or uncooked hotdogs. But man, could he juggle!

  14. rosie1925 says:

    Good God. I remember playing with mercury in chemistry class! That and asbestos. Guess I’ dead and don’t know it!

  15. Tunnen says:

    CFLs contain 4-5 mg of mercury. Upon breaking, only a percentage of that is sent airborne while the rest remains trapped in or on the bulb. If you clean the site with a damp paper towel or otherwise disposable rag, you will prevent more from becoming airborne while you clean. The mercury that does happen to get airborne, you will only be exposed to a small percentage of that which leaves your overall exposure in the range of eating a couple of cans of tuna. So just skip you next seafood meal, and call it even.

    Larger spills of mercury, like old thermometers, require a lot more detail in cleaning up.

  16. Runner says:

    What I find funny… Growing up me and friends would take the big florescent light bulbs and throw them on big objects to make them explode.

    I think one time we played “light sabres” with them too…. Gawd I was stupid back then when I think of it.

  17. janeslogin says:

    I would carry a tiny bottle of mercury around with me as a kid. Pour it into my hand to show it to unfamiliar friends and sometimes coat a penny with it.

    Now I am 74 years old. I have COPD, BPH, and — what was the subject again?

  18. FrugalFreak says:

    We used to break em on purpose and play with it in the 70′s

  19. dolemite says:

    I broke a CFL one time that was stuck in a fixture. It simply snapped off. I believe I threw it in the trash and that was that. I’m sure the area and myself were contaminated, but …honestly, how bad could it be?

  20. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    I’m taking it from reading the article that back in high school, when we spilled some mercury in science class (in the 70′s), we should not have chased it around and picked it up with a piece of paper & dumped it back in the test tube?

  21. Dallas_shopper says:

    Wow…when I was a kid we’d just play with the mercury until mom made us dispose of it down the sink.

  22. EllenRose says:

    There is a significant amount of official hypocrisy going on. Back around 1990, a certain University was going to demolish a laboratory building, contents and all, to make way for a newer building. The professor occupying the building was an enormous packrat — no way could they sort through all the equipment.

    They brought in the demolition equipment and were ready to go, when somebody spilled mercury in the lab. They stopped the whole operation, and called the hazmat team.

    That mercury would have been spilled during the demolition in any case. But it would have been done as a consequence of Official Orders, so that didn’t count.

  23. chemmy says:

    I can’t even RTFA without thinking “Let the bodies hit the FLOOR”

  24. kobresia says:

    My theory is that people hear about the bad environmental issues with casual disposal of mercury, as well as cases of severe and chronic overexposure, and then freak-out over ALL exposure to it.

    Eat or breathe large quantities of mercury compounds, that’s bad. Eat lots and lots of things (such as fish and things that eat lots of fish, such as marine mammals) that contain elevated levels of mercury due to industrial pollution, that’s bad too.

    Roll a little of mercury around in your fingers occasionally for a short period of time, that’s not very bad. Nor is breaking a CFL bulb now and again. It has to get into your bloodstream somehow in order to accumulate in your tissues and cause the damage. And that’s the key– mercury poisoning is a cumulative effect, and its effects are highly reversible unless someone is chronically exposed to elevated levels.

  25. donovanr says:

    I’m not so sure about the vacuuming part. Spin mercury around in a vacuum and it will turn to vapor that should easily waft through the dust filter. Even sweeping will break up the mercury into hard to find beads that will turn to vapor. If you look at the standard clean up procedures for lab spills it involves some crazy steps as mercury is some odd stuff. For one it will bind to your gold jewelry. Gold is like a sponge for the stuff. Labs that use mercury contain clean up kits with powders and treated sponges that will form an amalgam (like a filling) that ceases the process of the mercury turning to vapor. Then after these are used they need to be disposed as hazardous waste.
    With the limited tools available to a householder I would say ventilate ventilate ventilate. Then scoop up what you can and then ventilate a whole lot more.
    Mercury is a weird poison in that it doesn’t generally make you sick in a conventional way it just makes your kidneys fail and drives you a bit insane.
    Pennies contain mostly zinc these days so maybe they will absorb some mercury. But even then for best effect you would need to grind them into a powder and sprinkle over the spill site.
    Oh and don’t put CFLs in places that you have broken conventional light-bulbs in the past.

    I just love that the tree-huggers have forced us to burn less coal (which spews mercury into the air) by putting mercury filled bombs into our kids rooms.

  26. MJDickPhoto says:

    oh dear god, we’re all going to die from mercury. (only if the PLANET collides with the earth)

    More Blog Hyping by Phil? this effects the consumers bottom dollar because?

    here’s the GOV URL for anyone that wants to educate themselves.

    http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf

  27. MJDickPhoto says:

    oh dear god, we’re all going to die from Mercury. (only if the PLANET collides with the earth)

    More Blog Hyping by Phil? this effects the consumers bottom dollar because?

    here’s the GOV URL for anyone that wants to educate themselves. More of us are at risk for consuming more ozone from the laser printer on our desk then Mercury Poison from common items like this.

    http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf

  28. Cantras says:

    When our mercury thermometer broke, my mom trapped the ball of mercury in some paper with the edges folded up and let us kids play with it. We turned out all right.

  29. Rick Sphinx says:

    We had a small bottle of mercury as a kid at home, don’t know why or how. We used to put a little in our hand, and watch it roll around our palm, than put it back. I wonder now, where it came from. This was around the mid 1970′s. I was told it was mercury. I know the small bottle was very heavy for it’s size.

    • Rick Sphinx says:

      PS> it was siver in color. Anyone know if this could really have been mercury?

      • daemonaquila says:

        Yup, that’s really mercury. I did the same thing – put mercury from a couple busted thermometers in a little jar – when I was a kid. My dad got mad because he was afraid I’d get it all over my hands and ingest it, etc., but he would pull out the jar from time to time and play neat tricks with it while I watched.

  30. Jemaine says:

    Well I should be dead then. The other week, I dropped one of the said bulbs, and since I was headed to bed, I just swept as much as I could under the bed, and put some dirty clothes over it and went to bed. I now use the old fashioned bulbs, they even put out better heat in the winter.

  31. agold says:

    Oops, I broke a CFL yesterday and I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Seriously. It wasn’t even mine! Those things are the biggest environmental scam since…arcgh!

  32. Harold Kint says:

    Do you actually read these things before posting? Good going Phil,

    The Consumerist blog starts off:
    ‘If you break a thermometer or compact fluorescent light bulb’
    Then Phil quotes only the steps to address a CFL light bulb break.

    Why not post the parent USEPA website? It’s more authoritative than the teacher in About.com.

    CFL cleanup article.
    http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup.html

    Thermometer Cleanup
    http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm

  33. daemonaquila says:

    The cleanup instructions are good, but the threat is really overblown. The risk from a broken CFL or thermometer is minimal. There really isn’t any appreciable risk from it in the liquid form, only the vapor. If it’s cleaned up by sopping it up versus doing something silly like spreading it all over with a broom or putting it directly into the air with a vacuum, there’s basically no risk to adults, kids, or fetuses in a pregnant mom. In practice, the level of mercury vapor that’s deemed dangerous to life or health doesn’t get surpassed from an accident like this. Seriously, people have been doing dumb stuff with broken thermometers since they went into medical use around 1870, without much incident. The bigger issue is keeping it out of the water supply, since a little bit goes a long way in causing toxicity for critters in that environment. Lots of contamination in our waterways, of course, means that we do start ingesting too much mercury because it bio-accumulates in fish and seafood.

  34. waicool says:

    ignorance is bliss i suppose. whether you break the mercury vapor laden bulb in your bedroom or it crushes in the landfill, the dangerous mercury is scattered around unnecessarily. i would love to see the eco-wacko clown who doesn’t see these things as a threat when one of these curly-Q’s shatter next to his infant’s nursery bed. Or better yet, twenty years from now when the polar caps are still around and the chevy volt is in a museum and the waste management folks start reporting the dangerous mercury levels leaching into the water table, yeah, just like paper vs plastic, another crisis for Al Gore and his goonies to make a billion dollars off of.

  35. qbubbles says:

    Meh. I had a friend in high school who stole some from the chem lab. We all played with it, in our hands, and then he ate it. He’s fine. He was fine then, 10 minutes from then, 10 days from then, and is still fine. So yeah… meh.

  36. newmie says:

    the whole mercury thing is very very overblown. It would take huge amount to actually be dangerous. I handled it in high school. rubbed it one things like dimes and pennies. It did not affect me in any way.

  37. Willy_HSV says:

    pffft, We use to play with Mercury in science class when I was young. No ill affects.

  38. maruawe says:

    The mercury level of contamination of a room would be minimal at best with a broken thermometer. However clean up should be done carefully and throughly to minimize the problem.
    But to go frantic like the article is implying is crap and I am ashamed of this PH.D for insinuating that a person have to go stark raving mad for something like this

  39. NickJames says:

    I broke a thermometer under my armpit once. Cut me up a bit and the mercury dribbled onto my bed. I just picked that shit up with my hands and bottled it. This was like 12 years ago so I was about 10 at the time. I stuck it in a plastic cup and kept it in my closet. It’s been there ever since.

    • Rexy on a rampage says:

      “I broke a thermometer under my armpit once.”

      I can’t for the life of me figure out how that happened or why there was a one under your armpit in the first place…

  40. shthar says:

    I love all the people here who played with mercury as a kid, and are just fine!

    You think maybe if we hadn’t played with mercury so much, we’d have something better to do with our lives than post here?