How to Clean Up a Mercury Spill at Your School
Mercury and mercury-containing components are hazardous wastes due to their toxicity. Keep students and staff away from contaminated areas. Even small amounts of mercury can pose a risk to human health and the environment. Exposure to mercury by inhalation is of particular concern in managing a spill.
Spills of more than one pound (two tablespoons) must be reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through the National Response Center (NRC). The NRC hotline operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call (800) 424-8802.
For small spills, less than the amount contained in a thermometer:
According to EPA, the general public can clean up small mercury spills no greater than the amount contained in a thermometer if spilled on a flat surface.
If your spill is larger, is not on a flat surface, or uncertainty
exists as to the cleanup method, spill size, or exposure, isolate
the contaminated area and call the Idaho State Communications
Center at (800) 632-8000 or (208) 846-7610.
Spill clean up with a mercury spill kit:
Mercury spill kits contain powders, granules, sprays, and/or cleanup materials specific for cleaning mercury spills. Spill kits range in price from $50 to $300 depending on contents. Follow the directions outlined in the kit.
If you do not have a mercury spill kit:
If a commercial mercury spill kit is not available, the spill may be managed with other items. Have on hand nitrile or neoprene gloves, a squeegee or playing card, eye dropper, plastic zipper-type bags, paper towels, and sulfur powder. Powdered sulfur may be purchased at garden supply stores or pharmacies.
- Put on gloves.
- Secure the area to keep the mercury spill from spreading and to keep people from coming in contact with it.
- If there are any broken pieces of glass or sharp objects, pick them up with care. Place all broken objects on a papertowel. Fold the paper towel and place in a zipper-type bag. Secure the bag and label the bag accordingly (i.e., broken glass).
- Use a squeegee or cardboard to gather the mercury beads. Use slow sweeping motions to keep the mercury from becoming uncontrollable. Use a flashlight to look for any additional mercury beads that may be sticking to the surface or in small cracked areas of the surface.
- Use an eyedropper, piece of paper, or cardboard to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully transfer the mercury onto a damp paper towel. Place the paper towel in a zipper-type bag and secure. Label the bag.
- Place all materials used with the cleanup, including your gloves, and all mercury beads and objects into a zipper-type bag. Secure and label the bag as mercury-contaminated hazardous waste.
- Shine a flashlight on the spilled area. If you still see any small droplets, they can be picked up by touching them with a piece of duct tape. (Remember to wear gloves and dispose of all materials in zipper-type, labeled bag.)
- Once all visible mercury is picked up and placed in the bag, sprinkle sulfur powder on the spill area; a color change from yellow to brown indicates that mercury is still present. Use a small brush to sweep up the sulfur and residual mercury, and place it into the same bag.
- Contact your hazardous waste management company for disposal in accordance with local, state, and federal laws.
- Keep a window open for at least 24 to 48 hours after your successful cleanup. Continue to keep students and staff out of cleanup area. If sickness occurs, seek medical attention immediately.
- Mercury can be cleaned up easily from hard, smooth surfaces like wood, linoleum, and tile. If a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery, or a similar surface, cut out the contaminated portions and dispose of as hazardous waste as outlined above. Once removed, check the floor below to ensure mercury has not soaked through the carpet.
Avoid spreading mercury.
- Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury vapor into the air and increase exposure. The vacuum will become contaminated and need to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
- Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and become contaminated.
- Never pour mercury down the drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and continue to volatilize over time, or expose workers during maintenance and repair of plumbing system. Due to its toxicity, it may also cause problems with the operation of the septic or sewer system.
- Never wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine. Mercury may contaminate the machine.
- Avoid foot traffic in spill areas. This will spread the mercury around making it harder to clean.
- Do not wear jewelry when cleaning up a spill. Mercury will adhere to and contaminate gold and other metals.