Protecting Public Health and the Environment.

Mercury in Jewelry

Necklaces from Mexico containing metallic mercury have shown up in Idaho schools. Unaware of the hazards, students bring the fragile glass pendant necklaces to school. Broken necklaces have resulted in mercury spills. Once broken, the spilled mercury warrants an evacuation and a hazardous material cleanup response. Whether at school or home, mercury spills of any kind or size pose a serious health risk.

The necklaces are often a beaded chain, cord, or leather strand with a glass pendant that contains mercury. The mercury appears as a silvery clump of liquid that rolls around in the hollow glass pendant. The glass pendant may also be filled with brightly colored liquid - red, green, blue, yellow - along with the mercury. Pendants can be in various shapes, such as hearts, bottles, saber teeth and chili peppers.

It is very important that school officials warn students not to purchase or bring mercury-containing jewelry to school.

Risk of Exposure to Mercury in Jewelry

Elemental (liquid) mercury is released when the glass is broken or when it leaks around the pendant's cord anchor. Once mercury spills, it breaks into tiny beads that can roll into cracks in floors or walls, or become trapped in carpet. If mercury spills are not reported or cleaned up immediately, mercury can be tracked on shoes from room to room, increasing the scale and cost of the cleanup and the risk of exposure. Mercury vaporizes rapidly at room temperature and becomes an invisible, odorless toxic vapor, particularly in poorly-ventilated spaces. If mercury spills go unnoticed or ignored, people will continue to get exposed until it gets cleaned up. 

Health Impacts of Exposure to Mercury in Jewelry

Vapor from spilled metallic mercury is highly toxic. The amount of mercury in these necklaces (just a few drops) can vaporize and reach levels that may be very harmful to health. Young children, developing fetuses, and people with kidney disease or other health conditions are especially vulnerable. Brief contact with mercury can cause harm before symptoms arise.

When mercury vapors are inhaled, mercury enters the bloodstream through the lungs. Inhalation of vapors may cause shortness of breath, chest pain and tightness, coughing, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, eye irritation and increase in blood pressure or heart rate. The central nervous system and kidneys are especially sensitive to the effects of mercury.

Exposure may lead to behavior changes (irritability, nervousness), tremors, impaired vision or hearing, memory problems. High exposures can result in permanent brain or kidney damage. The severity of harm depends on the level of mercury vapors, the duration of exposure, and individual sensitivity. Mercury can also be absorbed by skin contact.

How to Prevent Exposure to Mercury from Jewelry

  • Inform students and parents about the health hazards associated with these necklaces, and that mercury necklaces or any mercury or mercury containing objects are not to be brought to school.
  • Discard necklaces, thermometers or other objects containing mercury by sealing in hard plastic containers and taken to a household hazardous waste collection center.  Contact your county solid waste department to find out if a household hazardous waste collection program exists for your area.  If no program exists, contact the product manufacturer or a hazardous waste recycling company.  If no other options are available, seal the mercury or mercury containing object in a plastic container and put it in the trash or other protected outside location for trash collection (check with the county solid waste department first to see if the landfill is lined).
  • Encourage schools to
    • Create and enforce a no-mercury policy and educate students and staff on the policy.
    • Conduct a mercury audit to determine if any elemental mercury or mercury-containing instruments exist.
    • Replace items such as thermometers or blood pressure cuffs with non-mercury alternatives.  For immobile items, such as thermostats or switches, place a label on it indicating it contains mercury so when it needs to be replaced it can be properly handled and disposed of.  For items with no alternatives, such as fluorescent light bulbs, properly handle, store, and recycle them to prevent spills.

Staff Contact

Pollution Prevention Projects Coordinator
Ben Jarvis
DEQ State Office
Environmental Management & Information Division
1410 N. Hilton
Boise, ID 83706
(208) 373-0146
ben.jarvis@deq.idaho.gov

Related Pages

Mercury-Free Zone Program for Schools

How to Clean Up a Mercury Spill at Your School