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The Dangers of Mercury - By Donald S. Welsh, U.S. EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator

Release Date: 3/29/2005
Contact Information: Liz Ferry, (215) 814-2909

Liz Ferry, (215) 814-2909

Recent mercury spills at schools across the nation have created significant public health incidents. Although metallic mercury may look fun to play with, mercury can evaporate into a toxic, odorless, colorless gas when exposed to air. If inhaled or absorbed over time, mercury vapors can result in tremors, insomnia, headaches, and can damage the brain, central nervous system, and other organs.

Pure mercury is a liquid metal, sometimes referred to as quicksilver, used to make products like thermometers, switches, and some light bulbs.

Children, babies, and pregnant women are especially at risk. In addition to posing healh risks, these spills have closed schools, affected children’s homes, and necessitated cleanups that cost state and local governments and school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In schools, mercury is found primarily in mercury-containing devices such as thermostats and in scientific laboratories. Some states have enacted legislation to remove mercury from schools. Other states have strict guidelines aimed at promoting mercury recycling, improving mercury management in schools, and educating teachers and students about the dangers of mercury.

People can help reduce mercury incidents by purchasing mercury-free products and correctly disposing of products that contain mercury.

The general public can clean up small mercury spills no greater than the amount contained in a thermometer from flat surfaces. For specific information about how to clean up a small spill, visit EPA’s web site at and click on mercury. If you think your mercury spill to be greater than the amount in a thermometer, isolate the contaminated area and call your local or state health department or environmental agency.

Other important guidelines are:

• Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure. The vacuum will be contaminated and have to be thrown away;

• Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them;

• Never pour mercury down the drain;

• Never wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine. It may contaminate the machine and pollute sewage;

• And never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.

Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority or your local fire department for proper disposal in accordance with local, state and federal laws.