Posted in Earth911
June 6, 2022

How To Avoid Mercury Exposure & What to Do if It Happens

Mercury is a metal that is liquid at room temperature and which can be toxic to humans and the environment. While mercury is a natural element that’s present in small amounts in our environment, it is present in some household items and used for industrial purposes. Knowing where you may find mercury is the first step to avoiding exposure and possible mercury poisoning.

While Earth911 previously published tips on safe disposal of items containing mercury, this article answers questions about ways you might get exposed to mercury, how to safely deal with a spill if it happens, how to detect mercury in your home, and what to do if you think you have mercury poisoning.

Know Where Mercury Shows Up to Avoid It

One of the most common ways to get mercury poisoning is by consuming seafood. The Food and Drug Administration offers guidance on which types of fish are safest to eat and how often it is safe to eat them, based on their mercury levels. Because fish is a good nutritional choice, the FDA does not say to avoid seafood. However, the agency advises some constraints for children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as shown in the following chart.

FDA guidance about reducing mercury exposure in seafood
Source: FDA.gov

But it’s not just your diet you need to watch; some items in your home are also potential sources of mercury poisoning. Common household products that contain small amounts of mercury include compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), non-digital thermometers, and certain batteries. Get familiar with the EPA’s list of common mercury-containing products, so you know which products pose a risk.

If handled correctly and not broken, mercury-containing products are not dangerous. But while you can’t get poisoned from the small amounts of mercury contained in household items, if they break or leak, they can put you and your family at risk.

If broken, CFLs can leak mercury

The mercury in these lightbulbs is a very small amount, less than the size of a pinhead. It is in both solid and vapor form. If one breaks in your home the mercury vapors can be hazardous for people and pets to breathe. It’s important to evacuate the area and clean it up immediately. Learn how to safely clean up a broken CFL to avoid excess mercury exposure. And make sure you dispose of broken bulbs properly.

A broken thermometer can mean mercury exposure

While newer thermometers don’t contain mercury, older non-digital ones do. If a mercury thermometer breaks, it’s important to clean it up immediately to reduce the risk of poisoning. The mercury will be a silvery liquid that is easy to identify. It’s important to clean it up immediately since it can evaporate into the air.

Button cell batteries contain mercury and are dangerous if swallowed

Since the U.S. Battery Act of 1996 phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries, the most common household batteries to contain this toxic metal are button cell batteries. These small batteries, which look like a button, may contain a small amount of mercury but any amount is potentially dangerous if swallowed. Always keep batteries out of children’s reach and in a dry, sealed container. Make sure to recycle household batteries correctly since they can contain heavy metals and other materials that shouldn’t go into the ground.

Swallowing an item that contains mercury is the most common way to get mercury poisoning. But it can also happen if the mercury comes in contact with your skin or from vapors in your home. Any mercury remaining after cleanup can continue to emit vapors so it’s important to clean up all of it.

A Mercury Spill Requires Proper Cleanup

If an item containing mercury breaks or a spill occurs in your home, always follow these basic rules for cleanup:

  1. Evacuate people and pets, and open windows to air the place out.
  2. Wear a mask and gloves, and never touch mercury with bare skin.
  3. Never vacuum mercury; it increases mercury vapors and exposure. If you have already attempted to vacuum up the mercury, remove the vacuum bag immediately and dispose of it with other cleanup materials at your local household hazardous waste (HHW) location.
  4. Clean up using a wet rag, something sticky like packing tape, or scoop it up with a couple of stiff pieces of paper.
  5. Seal the mercury and all cleanup materials into a zip-close plastic bag and dispose of it at your local HHW drop-off.
  6. In some cases, such as if the spill is on upholstery or carpet, you might want to hire a professional cleaner with hazardous waste experience.

Follow the rules for proper disposal of mercury in order to avoid contamination of soil and drinking water, and increased risks to our health. In some U.S. states and countries, this is required by law. Check with your local municipality to verify how to dispose of an item containing mercury, or search the Earth911 database for a place to drop it off in your area.

Broken or not, household items that contain mercury cannot go in residential trash or recycling. If the product is not broken, there is likely a recycling drop-off program in your area, like Home Depot or Best Buy, that recycle CFLs and batteries.

gloved hand holding test tube of blood with "mercury test" on the label.
If you have been exposed to mercury and you are experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning, see a doctor immediately. Your physician may order blood and urine tests to measure levels in your body.

How To Test for Mercury in Your Home

Once you have a mercury spill in your home, you are at risk of poisoning from the vapors, even after you clean it up. Mercury poisoning can cause neurological problems, as well as a number of other health issues.

There are two common methods for testing inside air for mercury: a field-portable mercury detector or collecting an air sample you send to a certified laboratory for analysis. A field-portable detector is generally used for big industrial spills and can be expensive. The least expensive method is to send an air sample to a lab.

  • LCS Laboratory sells home mercury self-testing kits. Give them details on the test you want to do and they will mail you a kit to meet your needs. Prices range from $150 to $300, depending on your needs.
  • Mercury Instruments offers detection systems that will sense if there are vapors present. This level of equipment is generally used for industrial purposes so it can be expensive. You might do better to find a local company to come out and test the air in your home.
  • This guide, put out by the state of New York, helps determine if you need to test the air in your home for mercury and which of the two primary methods you should use.

Small mercury leaks from a broken household product, like a CFL, don’t usually require an air quality test for vapors. You should only worry about testing if one of the following situations apply:

  • The spill is in an area that is not easy to ventilate with fans and open windows.
  • You are not certain where the mercury spilled or how far it spread.
  • You are not sure if you collected all the mercury during cleanup.
  • The spill was on a porous surface like upholstery or carpet.
  • Someone in the home is showing symptoms of mercury poisoning.

If you are concerned that a product in your home may be leaking mercury, check out this home test kit:

Pay attention when buying a mercury home test kit as many are for testing your tap water, not the air in your home.

How To Know if You Have Mercury Poisoning

Though it’s rare to get mercury poisoning, the most common way is to swallow it. You can also get it by breathing in the vapors, but ventilating after a spill should prevent this.

  • Everlywell.com offers a home test kit to detect toxic elements in your body, including mercury. Do the test at home then mail in the samples for results.
  • Testing.com sells a home testing kit to detect mercury in your body. The test requires a urine and blood sample. You have to find a lab near you to do the blood draw.

No matter how you might have been exposed,  if you are feeling any symptoms you should see your doctor immediately and do a home test to see if there are mercury vapors in the air. If uncertain, call poison control at 1-800-222-1222 in the U.S. If you’re not in the U.S., please call your local poison control number.

Jen Thilman June 6, 2022 at 04:41PM

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