Why You Shouldn't Handle Mercury

Man spilling mercury from his hand into a petri dish.
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It's never safe to touch mercury. Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. Although it has been removed from most thermometers because of safety concerns, you can still find it in thermostats and fluorescent lights.

You may have heard older people remark that it used to be common to use liquid mercury in labs and as students, they often poked at it with fingers and pencils. Yes, they lived to tell the tale, but they may also have suffered some small, permanent neurological damage as a result.

In its liquid metal form, mercury absorbs instantly into the skin; but it also has an extremely high vapor pressure, so an open container of mercury disperses the metal into the air. It sticks to clothing and is absorbed by hair and nails, so you don't want to poke it with a fingernail or wipe it up with a cloth.

Mercury Toxicity

Direct contact with elemental (liquid) mercury can cause irritation and chemical burns. Possible immediate effects may include dizziness, vertigo, flu-like symptoms, burning or irritation, pale or clammy skin, irritability, and emotional instability.

In addition, exposure to mercury affects the central nervous system, damaging the brain, liver, kidneys, and blood. The element affects reproductive organs and can damage a fetus. Several other symptoms are possible, depending on the route and duration of exposure.

Some effects of mercury contact can be immediate, but the effects of mercury exposure also may be delayed.

What To Do If You Touch Mercury

The best action to do if you touch mercury is to seek immediate medical attention, even if you feel fine and aren't experiencing any obvious effects. Quick treatment can remove mercury from your system, preventing some damage. Also, keep in mind mercury exposure can affect your mental state, so don't assume your personal assessment of your health is valid. It's a good idea to contact your local Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) or consult your physician.

Mercury First Aid

If you do get mercury on your skin, seek medical attention and follow professional advice. Remove contaminated clothing and flush skin with water for 15 minutes to remove as much mercury as possible. If a person exposed to mercury stops breathing, use a bag and mask to give them air, but don't perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, since this contaminates the rescuer, too.

How To Clean Up a Mercury Spill

Mercury spills are rare but can happen if you break a mercury thermometer, thermostat, or fluorescent bulb. If that happens, you'll need to dispose of the mercury and contaminated objects properly. Don't use a vacuum or a broom, since this contaminates the tools and actually spreads the mercury more than if you do nothing. Don't flush it down the drain or throw it in the trash. Don't wash mercury-contaminated clothing.

You can use a stiff sheet of paper to push the mercury droplets together to form a larger drop and then use an eyedropper to suck the one drop up or push it into a jar that you can seal with a lid. If you have them, sulfur or zinc can be sprinkled onto mercury to form an amalgam, binding the mercury into a less reactive form. Call your local health department, municipal waste authority or fire department for information on the proper disposal of the jar and contaminated clothing or carpets in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

If you have a larger mercury spill than the drop or two from a thermometer and up to about two tablespoons, open the windows, leave the room, shut the door behind you, and call your local health authority immediately. If the spill is more than about two tablespoons, call the National Response Center (NRC) hotline at (800) 424-8802 immediately. The NRC hotline operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

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