Winter Hazards: Mercury

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Poison Safety & Prevention

Winter time means Santa time but it can also mean cold and flu time. It can also mean exposure to another poison hazard.

Many of us has been fascinated with mercury when working with it in chemistry lab or when it’s used in Sci-fi-movies. It’s nothing supernatural: it’s just mercury. Mercury isn’t just fun stuff. It has a dark side and can be poisonous.

Mercury is found in three different forms: inorganic, organic, and elemental. Of the three, the most common form is elemental, also referred to as metallic mercury. It is the shiny silver liquid in thermometers. The toxicity of mercury in this form is sometimes misunderstood.

Elemental mercury is not absorbed through the stomach and intestines. Swallowing elemental mercury from a thermometer is not a problem; however, mercury fumes can result in poisoning to the lungs when inhaled over a while. Don’t be alarmed by a broken thermometer since mercury does not vaporize fast and there is only a small amount of mercury. If proper procedures are used to clean up and dispose of the mercury, the chances of a poisoning from the vapors is small.

If you have a broken thermometer, do not use the vacuum cleaner to clean up the mess. The heat and air movement generated by the vacuum cleaner increases the amount of mercury in the air around you. Try scooping or brushing the mercury into a container. Disposal of small amounts of mercury should be in an outdoor garbage. Avoid handling mercury with your hands. Elemental mercury is not absorbed through the skin, but the heat transferred by your body to the mercury will increase the amount of fumes produces.

Should any mercury spill or exposure occur especially in your home, contact the Texas Poison Center Network at 1-800-222-1222. The poison experts will gladly assist you. If necessary, they will help you contact the agencies responsible for cleaning up mercury from your home. If you have any questions or concerns about a poisoning, contact the poison center before doing anything.