Incidents of mercury contamination occur in Kansas and across the nation. Mercury spills are expensive to clean up, can upset your daily routine, and even affect your health. Young children and developing fetuses are especially susceptible to the adverse health effects of mercury exposure.
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) contain small amounts of mercury vapor, and a broken CFL must be cleaned up carefully. The KDHE Bureau of Waste Management has information about the use and disposal of spent CFLs.
When transporting mercury for disposal, always use an air-tight, non-breakable container. Businesses should make arrangements with their hazardous waste contractor, other commercial hazardous waste disposal firms, or recyclers to remove commercially stored mercury. Contact KDHE at 800-282-9790 for mercury disposal guidance. For mercury spills, call KDHE at 785-291-3333.
What Is Mercury?
Mercury (also known as quicksilver) is a silvery-white, poisonous, metallic element that is an extremely heavy liquid at room temperature. Metallic mercury is used in thermometers, batteries, some children's sneakers that light up, some household thermostats, some heirloom clocks, barometers, vapor lamps, and blood pressure cuffs. While mercury in thermometers poses little threat, a portable blood pressure gauge may hold 2-1/2 pounds of mercury. That is enough to cause great concern if spilled. Commercial uses of mercury include manufacturing chemical pesticides and mercury compounds.
How Toxic Is Mercury?
Metallic mercury is highly toxic. Young children and fetuses are the most vulnerable. Mercury can enter the body through inhalation of mercury vapors or by skin absorption. Mercury will accumulate in body tissues and organs and cause adverse health problems.
How Are People Exposed to Mercury?
Both short and long-term exposure to metallic mercury can cause serious health problems. Human exposure to metallic mercury occurs primarily from breathing contaminated air. Other forms of mercury poisoning include drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food, particularly mercury-contaminated fish. Mercury may enter the body directly through skin contact.
Exposure to mercury can come from breaking a thermometer, spilling elemental mercury in a high school or college science laboratory, or experimenting or playing with discovered elemental mercury. Young children may be at greater risk for exposure since they might play on the floor or carpeting where metallic mercury has been spilled or tracked. They are particularly vulnerable to damage to their nervous systems. Mercury vapors are readily absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs, and the human central nervous system, which is still developing during early childhood, may become permanently damaged.
Mercury is also is used in conjunction with some ethnic folk medicine and religious practices. Known as "azogue" in Latino botanicas (stores selling folk medicines and religious items), mercury is used in several Caribbean-based cultural practices: Esperitismo, a spiritual belief system native to Puerto Rico; Santeria, a Cuban-based religion that venerates both African deities and Catholic saints; and voodoo. The use of azogue (mercury) in religious practices is recommended in some Hispanic communities by family members, spiritualists, card readers, and santeros. Azogue may be carried in a sealed pouch prepared by a spiritual leader or sprinkled in the home or automobile. Some botanica owners suggest mixing it in bathwater or perfume and placing it in devotional candles. These activities can rapidly vaporize the mercury, posing a great health risk to those who frequently engage in such religious practices.
How to Protect Yourself From Mercury Exposure
Mercury contamination results from exposure to mercury through air, water, food, soil, or direct contact. Exposure to metallic mercury occurs when the mercury is not stored in a closed container. Contamination will result wherever metallic mercury is spilled. Metallic mercury and its vapors are extremely difficult to remove from clothes, furniture, carpet, floors, walls, and electronic equipment such as computers. The vapors can also accumulate in walls and other structures in rooms. Contamination from mercury spills can pose a risk for many months or years. The threat exists for those currently residing in the home, and also those who live there afterward.
It is important to avoid using metallic mercury. Appropriate substitutes are available for nearly all uses of metallic mercury. If it is necessary to use metallic mercury, make sure it is safely stored in a leakproof container and kept in a secure place.
Mercury Health Effects
Elemental mercury and mercury compounds pose an extreme health hazard, particularly to developing fetuses, young children, and frail persons of any age. Long-term exposure to mercury can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys, and harm the development of unborn babies. Mercury has not been shown to cause cancer in humans. Organic mercury from eating contaminated fish or grain may cause greater harm to the brain and to developing fetuses than to the kidneys. Mercury vapors may cause greater harm to the brain, while inorganic mercury salts in water supplies or in contaminated foods may cause greater harm to the kidneys.
At high levels, metallic mercury can affect the nervous system and the developing fetus. Short-term exposure to high levels of inorganic or organic mercury produces similar health effects, but full recovery is more likely once the body is free of contamination. Long-term exposure to lower levels of mercury is a greater threat to overall health and maybe more insidious because it causes harm before symptoms are evident. The detrimental effects of low-level, long-term exposure may be irreversible, particularly to the brain and kidneys.
Mercury easily enters the body through several routes, but it may take many months for the body to purge itself of the poisonous metal. Mercury vapors can be breathed - among the most hazardous exposures to elemental mercury. Handling the liquid metal also allows mercury to enter the body through pores of the skin. Mercury leaves the body mostly through the urinary and digestive tracts.
Medical professionals test for mercury poisoning by drawing blood and taking urine samples, then examining the specimens with special laboratory equipment. The tests are reliable, accurate, and easily available. In some cases - particularly when mercury levels in the body are extremely high - "chelation" therapy is necessary. Chelation therapy involves introducing a chemical into the bloodstream that combines with mercury to aid in removing the metal from the body.
Once exposed to mercury, one can experience any of the following symptoms: Coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, vision problems, erratic behavior, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, tremors, rashes, mouth sores, itching, swelling, flushing, kidney problems, loose teeth, hearing problems, nausea, impaired judgment, memory loss, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, sleeplessness, restlessness, irritability, shyness, fretfulness, joint pains, and weakness.
What to Do if a Mercury Spill Occurs
When liquid mercury spills, it breaks into small drops. Any disturbance causes the mercury to break into even smaller droplets. As the droplets become smaller, the mercury vaporizes and can be easily inhaled. Mercury spilled in a room may produce vapor concentrations that are dangerous to human health. Small amounts of mercury - like from a broken fever thermometer or the new CFL style bulbs, for example - may pose only a nominal hazard and be relatively simple to clean up safely.
- Please read the EPA mercury spill guidance webpages for metallic mercury and for broken CFL light bulbs.
- Any spill beyond two tablespoons (one pound) must be reported by calling the National Response Center
Who to Call if Assistance or Advice Is Needed
- For homes, apartments, businesses, and non-government health care facilities in Kansas, call the local EPA spill line
EPA will provide guidance and oversight for spills in homes and businesses in Kansas. If a response is needed, they may respond with EPA personnel, their contractor, and/or possibly with the Kansas Fire Marshall Hazmat Division. If the spill has already been called into the National Response Center, Phone: 800-424-8802. The local EPA will already be notified and they will likely be calling the person reporting the spill.
- For schools, county or city-owned buildings, and other publicly owned facilities
- In Kansas, Call the KDHE Spill Line
KDHE will provide guidance and oversight for spills in public schools and other publicly owned places in Kansas. If a response is needed, KDHE will respond with their personnel and possibly with the Kansas Fire Marshall Hazmat Division. The state responders may be able to clean up small spills, but if the spill is large or complex the management of the facility may have to hire a clean-up contractor.