What to do if You Break a Mercury Thermometer

Mercury thermometers, though increasingly rare, may still be found in some homes and workplaces. In the event one breaks, it’s crucial to understand the risks associated with mercury exposure. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that poses serious health threats, especially to children and pregnant women. Exposure can occur from inhaling mercury vapors released from the broken thermometer, leading to symptoms like tremors, mood changes, neuromuscular changes, and kidney damage in severe cases.

Even a small spill can produce dangerous levels of vapor, hence swift and safe cleanup is critical. Mercury is also an environmental hazard, as it can enter water systems and accumulate in the food chain. Recognizing these risks underlines the importance of this guide, aimed at empowering you with the necessary knowledge and procedures to respond effectively to a mercury spill from a broken thermometer. In this way, we can ensure the safety and well-being of ourselves, our families, and our environment.

what to do if you break a mercury thermometer

Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer

Mercury poisoning can result from direct inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion of mercury or mercury-contaminated substances. The extent of symptoms depends on the level of exposure and duration.

  • Inhalation of Mercury Vapors: Inhaling mercury vapors is the most common way to get mercury poisoning from a broken thermometer. Acute symptoms can include coughing, breathlessness, chest tightness, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and a metallic taste in the mouth. In the long run, chronic inhalation may lead to more severe symptoms like tremors, emotional changes (mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness), insomnia, neuromuscular changes (weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching), and cognitive impairments (memory loss, difficulty concentrating).
  • Skin Contact with Mercury: Direct skin contact with mercury may cause a rash or dermatitis. While less dangerous than inhalation or ingestion, prolonged exposure can lead to symptoms similar to inhaled mercury.
  • Ingestion of Mercury-contaminated Substances: Ingesting mercury can lead to severe stomach irritation, causing pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If mercury-contaminated substances are ingested, the mercury can accumulate in the body over time, potentially causing long-term health problems.
  • Delayed Symptoms and Long-term Effects of Mercury Exposure: Delayed symptoms may appear weeks to months after exposure, making mercury poisoning tricky to diagnose. Chronic exposure can lead to kidney damage and, in extreme cases, kidney failure. Long-term neurological effects include tremors, difficulties with physical coordination, vision changes, and hearing impairment. Neurological symptoms can be particularly pronounced in children and can include developmental delays and learning difficulties.

Direct Actions to Take if a Mercury Thermometer Breaks

If a mercury thermometer breaks, follow these steps to limit exposure and minimize health risks:

  • EVACUATE the Immediate Area: The moment a mercury thermometer breaks, move away from the spill. Prioritize evacuating vulnerable individuals such as pregnant women, children, and pets.
  • PREVENT Others from Approaching the Spill: Make sure no one, including pets, comes near the affected area. This action will prevent accidental contact or inhalation of mercury.
  • VENTILATE the Room: Open all windows and exterior doors to allow fresh air to circulate in the room. Activate fans to push the air outside, but ensure the airflow is directed away from people or pets. Do not use heating or air conditioning, as this can spread mercury vapor throughout the house.
  • ISOLATE the Broken Thermometer and Contain Mercury Spread: Seal off the area where the thermometer broke. Close all interior doors and cover any ventilation grills or radiators with plastic sheeting or wet paper towels. Carefully collect any large glass pieces and place them in a sealable plastic bag or container, but refrain from cleaning up the mercury yourself. Depending on the spill’s extent, professional cleanup may be necessary.

how to clean up mercury from a broken thermometer

Cleaning Up Mercury from a Broken Thermometer

Cleaning up mercury requires specific methods to prevent unnecessary exposure and environmental contamination. Here’s a step-by-step guide to address mercury spills effectively:

  • Gather the Necessary Materials for Cleanup:
    • You’ll need the following items
      • Plastic zip bags,
      • Rubber gloves,
      • Disposable broom and dustpan,
      • Tape (sticky side out),
      • Damp paper towels,
      • Flashlight,
      • Airtight containers.
    • If possible, obtain a specialized mercury spill kit that contains additional cleanup tools.
  • Wear Appropriate Protective Gear: Always use rubber gloves when dealing with a mercury spill. If your eyes could potentially be exposed, wear safety goggles. Never handle mercury bare-handed.
  • Use Specialized Mercury Cleanup Kits or Materials: Mercury spill kits contain materials that help absorb mercury and convert it into a less toxic form. If a spill kit is not available, common household items can be used with care.
  • Small Mercury Spills on Hard Surfaces: For small spills, use a piece of cardboard or a disposable broom to carefully gather mercury beads. Shine a flashlight at a low angle to locate all the mercury beads. The beads will reflect the light, making them easier to see. Never use a vacuum cleaner or broom, as these can spread the mercury.
  • Large Mercury Spills or Spills on Carpeting or Fabrics: If the spill is large or on a carpet, fabric, or porous surface, professional help may be necessary. Contact your local health department or a hazardous waste professional. Never try to clean up a large spill yourself.
  • Follow Proper Cleanup Procedures to Minimize Exposure: Once all visible mercury is collected, use sticky tape to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and mercury beads. Afterward, clean the area with a damp paper towel. Place the used towel in a plastic bag and seal it.
  • Safely Dispose of Mercury-Contaminated Materials: Place all mercury-contaminated materials into a sealed plastic bag or airtight container. Label it as “Mercury – Hazardous Waste” and contact your local waste disposal facility to find out how to dispose of it properly. Never dispose of mercury waste in regular household trash or down the drain.

Always remember that mercury is a dangerous substance. If you’re uncertain about handling it, it’s best to seek professional assistance.

What to Do If You Are Exposed to Mercury from a Broken Thermometer

Mercury exposure can have serious health implications. If you suspect you have been exposed to mercury from a broken thermometer, here’s what you should do based on the type of exposure:

  • Inhalation Exposure: If you’ve inhaled mercury vapors, immediately move to an area with fresh air. This reduces the concentration of mercury you’re breathing in, helping to limit further exposure.
  • Skin Contact Exposure: If mercury touches your skin, promptly remove any contaminated clothing and rinse the affected area with plenty of water. Do not scrub the skin as it may increase absorption. Use soap to gently cleanse the area.
  • Ingestion Exposure: If you or someone else has swallowed mercury, do not induce vomiting. Instead, rinse out the mouth with water and seek immediate medical help.
  • Seeking Immediate Medical Attention or Contacting Poison Control Centers: Regardless of the type of exposure, it’s crucial to seek medical help immediately. Contact the local poison control center or go to the nearest emergency room. Provide as much information as you can, such as the amount and form of mercury exposed to, the route of exposure (inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion), and the duration of exposure.

Remember, quick action can significantly reduce the risk of long-term health effects from mercury exposure. It’s always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to potential mercury poisoning.

Video courtesy of CDC.

Preventive Measures and Precautions

Prevention is always better than cure, especially when it comes to mercury exposure. Here are some measures and precautions you can take:

  • Store Mercury Thermometers Properly and Securely: If you still use a mercury thermometer, ensure it’s securely stored to prevent breakages. Keep it in a sturdy, protective case and store it in a place where it’s not likely to fall or be knocked over.
  • Transition to Safer Thermometers: Consider switching to safer alternatives. Digital, alcohol, or gallium thermometers pose no risk of mercury exposure and can be just as accurate. This simple switch can prevent potential mercury spills in the future.
  • Educate Yourself and Others about the Dangers of Mercury Exposure: Knowing the risks associated with mercury can help you take the necessary precautions. Share this knowledge with your family, friends, and colleagues. Educating children about the dangers of mercury is especially important, as they may be more inclined to touch or play with shiny mercury beads.
  • Properly Dispose of Mercury-Containing Products: Don’t throw a mercury thermometer into regular household trash. Contact your local waste disposal facility for information on how to properly dispose of mercury-containing items. In some areas, there are programs or collection events for household hazardous waste.

Mercury Thermometer FAQ

How long does mercury vapor stay in the air?

Mercury vapor can stay in the air for a long time, especially in enclosed, poorly-ventilated spaces. Depending on the conditions, mercury vapors can remain airborne for months.

How long does it take for thermometer mercury to evaporate?

Mercury from a broken thermometer can start to evaporate at room temperature immediately, releasing potentially harmful vapors into the air. The rate of evaporation increases with temperature.

Can mercury vapor harm you?

Yes, inhaling mercury vapor is dangerous. It can lead to acute symptoms like coughing, breathlessness, chest tightness, nausea, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Chronic exposure can lead to more severe health effects like kidney damage and neurological issues.

How do you dispose of mercury at home?

Never dispose of mercury in regular household trash, down the drain, or by burning. Contact your local waste disposal facility or environmental agency for information on how to properly dispose of mercury-containing items.

Is a broken thermometer toxic?

Yes, if the thermometer contains mercury. The mercury in the thermometer can be harmful if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin.

What should you do if you inhaled mercury?

If you’ve inhaled mercury vapors, move to an area with fresh air immediately. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

What not to do with mercury?

Never use a vacuum or broom to clean up a mercury spill, as these can spread the mercury. Do not wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine. Do not pour mercury down the drain or dispose of it in regular trash.

How long does it take for mercury poisoning to show?

Symptoms of mercury poisoning can begin to appear within hours or days of significant exposure. However, in cases of low-level exposure, it might take weeks to months for symptoms to appear.

How long does mercury stay in the body?

Once in the body, mercury can remain for years. It accumulates in the kidneys and brain, and it can pass through the placenta to a developing fetus.

Is mercury poisoning permanent?

The damage caused by mercury poisoning can be permanent, especially with chronic exposure. This is why it’s essential to seek medical attention promptly if mercury exposure is suspected. Treatment can help to prevent or reduce long-term health effects.

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