Why You Shouldn't Handle Mercury

Man spilling mercury from his hand into a petri dish.
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Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. Although it has been removed from most thermometers, you can still find it in thermostats and fluorescent lights.

It's never safe to touch mercury. You'll hear older people tell you how it used to be common to use liquid mercury in labs and poke at it with fingers and pencils. Yes, they lived to tell the tale, but they may have suffered some small, permanent neurological damage as a result. Mercury absorbs instantly into the skin, plus it has an extremely high vapor pressure, therefore 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

Mercury affects the central nervous system. It damages the brain, liver, kidneys, and blood. Direct contact with elemental (liquid) mercury can cause irritation and chemical burns. The element affects reproductive organs and can damage a fetus. Some effects of mercury contact can be immediate, but the effects of mercury exposure also may be delayed. Possible immediate effects may include dizziness, vertigo, flu-like symptoms, burning or irritation, pale or clammy skin, irritability, and emotional instability. Several other symptoms are possible, depending on the route and duration of exposure.

What To Do If You Touch Mercury

The best action 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 Poison Control 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

Don't use a vacuum or a broom, since this contaminates the tools and actually spreads the mercury more than if you do nothing! Also, don't flush it down the drain or throw it in the trash. You can use a stiff sheet of paper to push the mercury droplets together to form a larger drop and then suck the one drop up using an eyedropper or push it into a jar that you can seal with a lid. Sulfur or zinc can be sprinkled onto mercury to form an amalgam, binding the mercury into a less reactive form.


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  • McFarland, RB, and Reigel, H (1978). "Chronic Mercury Poisoning from a Single Brief Exposure". J. Occup. Med. 20 (8): 532.
  • Environmental Health Criteria 1: Mercury. Geneva: World Health Organization. 1976. ISBN 92-4-154061-3.
  • Mercury: Spills, Disposal and Site Cleanup". Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved August 5, 2013.