The information on this page gives school administrators, teachers and maintenance engineers useful resources to help keep students and staff safe from mercury.
Mercury in schools is a concern because it is a toxin that can affect the nervous system. Children younger than 15, whose nervous systems are still developing, are more susceptible to harm from mercury exposure than are adults.
Mercury can also damage the liver and kidneys. Even small amounts are a health hazard because it volatilizes at room temperature and students and staff may be exposed to toxic levels when they inhale mercury vapor.
State law bans mercury in schools
In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law banning mercury in elementary and secondary schools, with the goal of having these schools mercury-free by the end of 2009 (see the state law ). So, except for fluorescent bulbs and mercury thermostats and gauges for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, there should be no mercury or mercury-containing equipment in Minnesota schools.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Mercury-Free Zone Program, which used a mercury-detecting dog, was instrumental in raising awareness of the danger of mercury in schools. The program, which operated from 2001 to 2009, has been terminated because there should be no mercury in Minnesota schools, thanks to the 2007 legislation.
What to do if you have a mercury spill
Despite the prohibition on mercury in schools, students or others may bring mercury or mercury-containing devices into a school. If there is a mercury spill or accident in your school, the MPCA has guidance for cleaning it up. See: Cleaning up a mercury spill in your school.
Independent school districts that wish to obtain health and safety funding for remediation or cleanup costs for a mercury spill should contact Michael Oxborough at the Minnesota Department of Education (phone 651-582-8509, email Michael.Oxborough@state.mn.us.
Disposing of mercury and mercury-containing devices
There are four possible options for disposing of mercury, mercury compounds, and mercury-containing devices (including fluorescent bulbs) from your school: your administrators can contract with an environmental consultant, your fluorescent light bulb recycler, the University of Minnesota Chemical Safety Day Program, or, in certain counties, the county’s household hazardous waste facility.
You may want to check these options to see which is the most convenient and/or inexpensive. (Note: Mercury compounds and mercury spill debris are considered hazardous waste and must be reported as such. If you need guidance, call the MPCA’s Small Business Assistance Program at 651-282-6143 or 800-657-3938.)
To ensure student, employee, and public safety, it is important to carefully store (in a locked room — out of reach of students), handle and properly dispose of fluorescent lights. While harmless when intact, fluorescent bulbs can expose individuals to toxic mercury vapors if broken.
If a fluorescent bulb breaks in your school, clean-up guidance can be found on the Cleaning up a mercury spill in your school page. In addition, broken bulbs should be placed in an air-tight container so they do not contaminate the air where they are stored. They should be recycled with your used fluorescent bulbs as soon as possible.
Other Minnesota resources that school administrators and staff may find useful include:
- chemical and equipment audit form
- The Minnesota Department of Health provides guidance on mercury-catalyzed polyurethane flooring that is present in some schools. MPCA has developed guidance for disposal of mercury catalyzed polyurethane flooring and subflooring.
- Minnesota Service Cooperatives provide assistance with health, safety and environmental management.