Everything You Need to Know About Cleaning Up Mercury Spills in Your Home

D.P. Taylor
Written by D.P. Taylor
Updated March 3, 2022
Happy family at home
Photo: E+ / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Mercury is a highly toxic substance found in common objects like lamps and thermometers.

  • Mercury can cause impairment to your faculties and even death.

  • Don't vacuum mercury spills.

  • Don’t wash contaminated clothes.

  • Dispose of mercury according to local laws.

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Sometimes, stuff breaks. It’s not a big deal—until, that is, it’s an item containing mercury. That’s when you need to be on high alert. Mercury is toxic and requires great care in handling. If you’ve broken an item and exposed your home to mercury, here’s what you must do right away.

Important note: Keep in mind the following advice is only for a tiny spill (about a few droplets or so). If it’s a couple of tablespoons or more worth of mercury, evacuate the area and immediately contact the National Response Center hotline at 800-424-8802.

What Is Mercury?

To handle mercury spills, you must first understand what you’re dealing with. Mercury is a chemical element and metal with a silvery appearance that’s used in old thermometers, fluorescent lamps, and other common household devices. It’s extremely toxic and dangerous: A spill can expose a person to a potentially deadly dose.

Mercury can cause impairment in vision, hearing, and speech. Also, acute sustained exposure to mercury can cause chest pain, pulmonary function impairment, central nervous system effects, violent muscular spasms, and even death at a high enough dose. As a result, anyone encountering a mercury spill must be cautious.

Avoid Making These Mistakes With Mercury

If you encounter a mercury spill, here are some things you should never do.

Don’t Vacuum Up the Spill or Broken Object

Never use a vacuum to clean up a mercury spill or broken object containing mercury. This will release its toxic vapor into the surrounding environment. Don’t use a broom either, as the more the mercury is broken into tiny droplets, the more it’s able to spread throughout the air.

Don’t Pour It Down the Drain

If you break an object where the mercury gets exposed, don’t pour it down the drain. It’ll pollute your septic or sewage system, as well as put mercury in a place where it could contaminate things that enter people’s mouths, like food and toothbrushes.

Don’t Put Contaminated Clothes in the Washing Machine

If your clothes get mercury on them, don’t put them in the washing machine either. It’ll contaminate the machine, the water that’s flushed away, and any clothes that are in the load. If you put clothes in the dryer, the mercury will also contaminate the surrounding environment.

Keep the Spill Contained

Dog being put in crate
Photo: E+ / Getty Images

Now that you know what not to do, it’s time to take some proactive steps. First, ensure the spill is contained, and alert anyone in the vicinity of the spill so they can stay away. Put your pets in their crates, and don’t allow children to assist you in dealing with the cleanup.

Shut Off the Heat or AC

The next step is to prevent the spread of toxic fumes from the mercury. Shut off your heating or air conditioning system to limit air movement in the home, and open windows to let the room air out.

Locate the Mercury

As a safety precaution, put on a respirator, goggles, safety gloves, and other protective gear you may have.

To find the spill, examine the floor for what looks like tiny silver droplets. Even if you don't see them but you suspect mercury was spilled, scoop up all the debris and then recheck the floor for signs of mercury. Using a flashlight can help show any glints on the floor.

Clean Up the Debris

If the spill is on a hardwood or tile floor, use a piece of paper or cardboard to scoop up the fragments of the broken item containing the mercury, and put them in a lidded container or sealable plastic bag. You can use duct tape to pick up tiny pieces of debris and put that into the container or bag as well. 

Dispose of the container or bag immediately after consulting with local laws on how to get rid of toxic materials. Once you’re sure all the mercury is gone, use a vacuum to clean the area, and then remove the contents inside the vacuum in a sealable plastic bag as well.

If the mercury has fallen onto a porous surface like carpet, sprinkle sulfur powder over the area and use a paper towel to rub the area gently. Because the powder binds with mercury, you can then use a wet paper towel to wipe it up out of the carpet.

Take Special Precautions If Clothes or Bedding Are Contaminated

If the item containing mercury was broken over clothing or bedding, wrap up all those materials and throw them away. It’s better to be safe than sorry when risking mercury exposure on porous fabric that goes against your skin.

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