Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Elemental Mercury Spills

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Elemental Mercury Spills

Article excerpt

Sources of elemental mercury ([Hg.sup.0]) include old natural gas regulators, manometers, sphygmomanometers, thermometers, and thermostats. Causes of [Hg.sup.0] spills include improper storage, container breakage, children playing with [Hg.sup.0], the breakage of devices containing [Hg.sup.0], and ritualistic use of [Hg.sup.0]. Inhalation is the primary exposure route for [Hg.sup.0]. Mercury released into the environment can enter lakes and streams, where bacteria convert it into methylmercury, which bioaccumulates in fish. Chronic exposure to [Hg.sup.0] vapors can damage the kidneys and neurologic system. Short-term exposure to high levels of [Hg.sup.0] vapors may cause lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation, among other effects. Minimizing [Hg.sup.0] dispersal is important after an [Hg.sup.0] spill. Tracking by shoes or apparel or vacuuming can spread [Hg.sup.0], increasing airborne concentrations and cleanup costs. The Illinois Department of Public Health's response to an [Hg.sup.0] spill depends on the size of the spill. Airborne concentrations after large spills are mapped with a mercury vapor analyzer (MVA). The cleanup begins with the spill site and any hot spots that were identified with the MVA. Hard surfaces can usually be cleaned, but contaminated porous items must be discarded. Leaving marginally contaminated items outdoors for a month or more during warm weather may dissipate the [Hg.sup.0]. After a cleanup, clearance sampling is conducted to determine if further cleanup is needed. The best way to prevent [Hg.sup.0] spills is reduce its use. Key words: cleanup, elemental mercury, health effects, mercury, prevention, remediation, spill, spill management. doi:10.1289/ehp.7048 available via[Online 29 September 2005]


Elemental mercury ([Hg.sup.0]), the silvery liquid most people associate with thermometers, is a liquid metal at room temperature. More than 13 times heavier than water, 1 tablespoon of [Hg.sup.0] has a mass of about 150 g, and 1 L of [Hg.sup.0] has a mass of about 13.5 kg. [Hg.sup.0] evaporates slowly to produce vapors, the primary health concern.

How [Hg.sup.0] Spills Occur

[Hg.sup.0] spills occur in many ways, often because of unnecessary or improper storage. Zeitz et al. (2002) reported the types and relative frequencies of 413 [Hg.sup.0] spills reported from 14 states. Ninety-six percent of the spills occurred at fixed locations, and 4% of the spills were transportation related. Of the fixed-location spills, the most frequent locations were schools or universities (20.3%), private residences (16.7%), health care facilities (16.5%), public utilities (12.6%), and manufacturing facilities (10.0%).

People often keep [Hg.sup.0] because they think it is valuable, but it is nearly worthless. Sometimes containers stored for years fall off shelves and break, or children find containers of [Hg.sup.0] in a home or school and play with it. Zeitz et al. (2002) reported that in residences the most common causes of [Hg.sup.0] spills were a spilled or dropped container (42%), children playing with [Hg.sup.0] (32%), and equipment failure (17%). Schools often have containers with [Hg.sup.0] (and other hazardous chemicals) that have been kept for many years. Zeitz et al. (2002) reported that children playing with [Hg.sup.0] caused 46% of reported [Hg.sup.0] spills in elementary and secondary schools. Other causes were a dropped or spilled container or instrument (18%), equipment failure (5%), and unknown (18%) (Zeitz et al. 2002).

Table 1 lists the sources and causes of [Hg.sup.0] spills investigated by the West Chicago Regional Office of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). In one school that IDPH investigated, a sixth-grade student found a jar with about 4 lb [Hg.sup.0] in an unlocked school cabinet. He threw beads of [Hg.sup.0] into two hallways, and he gave [Hg. …

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