Spilled mercury, even small quantities in the home, should be cleaned up quickly and properly so that people don't come in contact with it or breathe its vapors. Some ordinary cleanup measures such as sweeping and vacuuming can actually increase the risks.
Mercury vapor is odorless, colorless and very toxic. Even though liquid mercury evaporates slowly, a significant amount of mercury vapor can build up indoors after spillage. The vapor will form faster if exposed to heat.
Elemental mercury has been used in a wide variety of equipment and consumer products, such as thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, and certain types of light bulbs. Mercury compounds have been used in products such as fungicides, antiseptics, and disinfectants. Some traditional medicines and skin lighteners can contain high levels of mercury. Mercury is now banned for use in most consumer products, but mercury-containing light bulbs are still available.
Immediately after a mercury spill
Take these four steps as soon as you discover that mercury has been spilled in your home.
1. Isolate the spill and ventilate the area
- Keep all people and pets away from the spill area.
- Immediately open windows in the room where the spill occurred.
- Close all doors between the room with the spill and the rest of the house. Use fans to blow mercury-contaminated air outside.
- Close or cover all heat vents and cold air returns. Turn off fans that don’t vent outside.
- Turn off any space heaters and central heating to cool the room and keep mercury from circulating inside the house. Leave air conditioner vents open if you are running your AC.
- Do not walk around the house in shoes or clothes contaminated with mercury.
2. Remove mercury from shoes, clothing, and skin.
- If mercury has touched your skin, shoes, or clothing, stay still and have someone bring you a plastic trash bag and wet paper towels.
- Wipe off or collect visible beads of mercury with wet paper towels and put them a trash bag.
- Double bag clothing and shoes contaminated with visible mercury. Seal the bag and label it “Mercury waste — do not open.”
- Shower well.
3. Call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222
If someone has inhaled mercury vapors, call the Poison Control Center for advice. (If you suspect a pet has been exposed to mercury, call your veterinarian.)
4. Call the Minnesota Duty Officer (651-649-5451, 800-422-079), day or night
If you are concerned that you can’t clean up the spill yourself using the directions below, contact the Duty Officer to connect with MPCA emergency response staff, who will guide you through the cleanup, or determine if additional cleanup is warranted.
See the complete instructions for cleaning up in-home mercury spills in MPCA's fact sheet:
Get rid of your mercury-containing items
The best way to protect your family from mercury is to remove mercury-containing products from your home. They must be treated as household hazardous waste. It is unlawful to place these items in ordinary household garbage and they should never be put in recycling bins. It's also illegal to sell mercury or mercury-containing devices. Mercury-containing household products can include:
- Fever and cooking thermometers — those with blue or red liquid do not contain mercury
- Some skin-lightening creams — If the label lists "calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurous,” or “mercurio" as ingredients, or no ingredients are listed, you should get rid of it.
- Blood pressure cuffs
- All types of fluorescent lights, including compact fluorescents, high-pressure sodium, and metal halide lights.
- Learn more: Mercury in consumer products (EPA)
Carefully collect all the mercury-containing items in your house and put them in a plastic bag or plastic screw-top container. Put the bag or container in a second bag, seal it with tape, and label "Mercury waste — do not open." Carefully transport the material to your county's household hazardous waste site.
Be careful as you collect, package, and transport mercury products to your collection site! It's not unusual for thermometers or other items to break during handling or in transit. Use packing material to pad breakable items. Haul items in your trunk or truck bed and secure the containers to avoid shifting while you drive.
Reduce mercury in the environment
Avoid buying products containing mercury and help reduce its use:
- Purchase LED lamps instead of fluorescent lamps when possible.
- Don't use skin lightening creams that contain mercury.
- Conserve energy and buy green power, to help limit the need for utilities to burn coal. Coal contains trace amounts of mercury which is released into the atmosphere when it's burned. About half the mercury in Minnesota comes from coal-burning power plants.