Mercury is a heavy, silver-colored element used in a variety of industries. While mercury has many uses, it should always be handled and transported safely if spilled. Disturbed mercury is especially dangerous because of the hazardous vapors it releases into the environment. If you don’t know how to handle and transport mercury properly, there could be toxic – or even fatal – consequences.
Undisturbed, contained mercury is like a hornets’ nest tucked underneath a doorway that rarely sees the light of day. But that hornets’ nest has the potential to wreak havoc on its surroundings if disturbed or poked. Once disturbed, a swarm of angry, stinging hornets is headed your way! The same holds true for disturbed mercury: It can wreak havoc on its surroundings by releasing odorless and colorless vapors that are harmful when inhaled.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that “Metallic mercury mainly causes health effects when inhaled as a vapor where it can be absorbed through the lungs. Symptoms of prolonged and/or acute exposure include:
- Emotional changes, such as mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness
- Neuromuscular changes, such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching
- Disturbances in sensations
- Changes in nerve responses
- Poor performance on tests of mental function
Higher exposures may also cause kidney effects, respiratory failure and even death,” according to the EPA.
Mercury metal in an undisturbed state initially appears shiny and clean, says Joe W. Rader, president of Rader Environmental Services. As it ages, the shiny silver-colored element loses its sheen, becoming dull. It also reacts with oxygen in the air to form a mercuric oxide, a shell that slows the release of the gas. Mercuric oxide also adds an extra layer of protection to anyone breathing the air. Aging mercury or mercuric oxide still off-gases low levels of toxic mercury vapors into the ambient breathing zone.
Where You Can Find Mercury
Mercury is found in a number of devices that are commonplace in residences, offices, healthcare settings and industrial buildings. Mercury-containing devices include old thermostats, thermometers, sphygmomanometers (old blood-pressure devices), vacuum pumps, switches, discharge tubes and old gas regulators.
Disturbed mercury is significantly more hazardous than mercury contained in one of these aforementioned devices. For instance, when mercury is disturbed by a contractor working in a house, a nurse taking someone’s temperature, a factory worker who stumbles across it on the factory floor, or a lab tech drops it in their R&D lab, its molecules split open and fresh mercury is volatilized.
Sometimes disturbed mercury is not visible to the naked eye or is microscopic. As a result, it can be spread on the sole of a contractor’s boot, or on the floor after a nurse accidentally breaks a thermometer, for instance. Friction and motion excite the mercury molecules, potentially spreading them far and wide across surfaces, across cracks and crevices and into whichever places gravity takes them!
Disturbed Mercury Is Hard to Contain
Due to the unique nature of elemental mercury, Rader says the substance typically fragments into small beads that “bounce” in various directions and inevitably roll away from the initial spill site. Using a vacuum cleaner to contain these visible bouncing fragments of mercury only makes the situation worse: You will cause additional mercury molecules to volatilize and you will likely release mercury vapor into the breathing zone.
You can also risk contaminating other parts of your house, workplace or healthcare facility. The same principle applies to the user of a broom or mop. The potential to spread mercury and contaminate countless surfaces increases exponentially.
Why Is Mercury So Dangerous?
Mercury releases vapors that are harmful to the lungs, especially the lungs of the most sensitive populations like pregnant women and young children. Much of the elemental mercury absorbed by the lungs reaches, and enters, the brain before it can be oxidized by the red blood cells. Oxidized mercury accumulates in the kidneys. Large quantities of inhaled mercury vapors can cause salivation, coughing, chest pain, tremors, emotional instability, kidney damage and have detrimental reproductive effects, according to the University of Florida’s Environmental Safety & Health Department.
Cleaning Up a Mercury Spill, or Disturbed Mercury
If you come across mercury in your home or workplace, try your best to contain the spill area immediately. Mercury is a hazardous material regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Then, evacuate individuals and pets from the room. Never use a vacuum cleaner to attempt to remove mercury from a spill site. This will only spread the mercury molecules farther and wider, contaminate your vacuum cleaner and potentially contaminate other areas of your house, medical facility or workplace.
As soon as possible, contact a mercury removal and disposal contractor like Rader Environmental Services. With its 30 years of expertise in mercury abatement, disposal and removal, Rader has a firm grasp on the best practices for remediating mercury.