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About Mercury

Metallic mercury is the pure form of mercury. It is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid much heavier than water that is used in thermometers, dental fillings and batteries and is also used in the production of chlorine gas and caustic soda. Exposure to high levels of metallic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in tremors, changes in vision or hearing, irritability, shyness and memory problems. Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation. Skin contact alone does not result in significant mercury absorption into the body, but inhalation exposure to mercury vapor may be likely in environments in which significant skin contact occur.

Who is at Risk?

Exposure to metallic mercury and the vapors that it releases may result from some dental work and medical treatments or even from a broken thermometer. In addition, workers in chemical and other industries that use mercury may be exposed by breathing contaminated air.

Because metallic mercury vaporizes into the air at room temperatures, it presents an immediate health risk to anyone spending a significant amount of time in a room where metallic mercury is sprinkled or spilled onto the floor, or where opened containers of metallic mercury are present. The use of metallic mercury in a home or apartment not only poses a threat to persons currently residing in that structure, but also to those who subsequently occupy that dwelling and are unaware of the past mercury use.

Preventing Mercury Poisoning

thermometer-02First, if possible, avoid using metallic mercury altogether. In addition, take the following precautions:

  • Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Do not vacuum up spilled mercury because it will vaporize and increase exposure.
  • If a large amount of mercury has been spilled, contact your health department.
  • Teach children not to play with shiny, silver liquids.

Appropriate substitutes are available for nearly all uses of metallic mercury. Make arrangements to safely dispose of whatever metallic mercury you might have. If you do need to use metallic mercury, make sure it is safely stored in a leak-proof container. Keep it in a secure space (e.g., a locked closet) so that others cannot easily get it. Use of metallic mercury in a controlled environment helps to reduce the risk that contamination will occur.

Proper Disposal

Residents and businesses in every town on Cape Cod participate in the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension’s mercury collection program by recycling mercury-containing devices at transfer stations and recycling centers. Residents and businesses can also bring mercury devices (except for bulbs) to scheduled Household Hazardous Products Collections.  For more information, visit the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.

Notes and Image Credits:

Header Image: By Own work (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons