Dealing with Mercury Spill

Mercury finds widespread use in medical devices, industrial instruments, lighting etc. The most common applications are in high-pressure sodium lamps and fluorescent bulbs, thermostats, spent batteries, sphygmomanometers, thermometers and dental amalgams. The amount of mercury going into landfills is increasing every year because of the growing use of mercury-based healthcare, lighting and industrial products and lack of sustainable hazardous waste management practices. Tens of millions of fluorescent bulbs are discarded across the world which usually ends up in dumpsites.

Mercury is highly toxic element and it is essential to educate people about the proper procedures and protection needed to clean up a mercury spill. Mercury is extremely toxic even in small amounts and directly affects the central nervous and renal systems, causing developmental delays, motor and brain problems. Mercury’s vaporizes readily at room temperature and gets absorbed into the lungs and spreads throughout the body.

The most common form of a mercury spill is in liquid form. When liquefied, the small beads that form are difficult to pick up and contain, and measures should be taken accordingly to insure workers are protected and do not come in contact with the contaminated area without wearing proper protection. A broken light fixture, while not spread out, is just as much of risk to the employees as the dust very readily spreads and can be inhaled.

Cleanup Procedure

Cleaning up this spill can be done in one of two methods, via amalgamation or insolubilization. Both methods will turn mercury in a non-vaporizing form. Insolubilization requires the mercury to be mixed into a sulfide, where amalgamation mixes the mercury with one or more metals into a solid, which is easier to collect and dispose. Three major surface areas that are encountered in spills are hard, such as concrete or tile, soft, such as carpet, and soils.

Before a spill takes place, the proper materials need to be in order for preventive maintenance. A spill kit should be on hand at any workstation where the risk of mercury spillage and exposure exists at all times. The first step when a spill occurs would be to isolate the contaminated area, evacuating all personal away from the building until the spill can be contained and corrected. The marking off of the area by tape or signs is followed by an immediate interview and spill inquiry report filled out with the workers assistance.

Ventilation is the primary concern of the contaminated area, as the free mercury will readily vaporize and continue to do so until collected. It is recommended to shut down the air conditioning or heating, if applicable, and open the windows to get the maximum amount of air in the room and allow the vapors to flow outside.

After the process of applying personal protective equipment on and the removal of all metallic objects from the worker, use mercury sensing gauges or a gas vapor analyzer to determine the areas of contamination and residue. An alternative method is to use a high intensity halogen light to detect the presence of mercury droplets or powder. A final method would be the application of a Sodium Sulfide solution to the contaminated area. Discoloration in the form of dark reddish brown stain will indicate the presence of mercury.

Upon completion of the spill area, collect all contaminated materials that have been amalgamated into a bucket with sealed lid. This container will be the primary device to return the objects to the mercury recycler. Inspect the area, and atmosphere for any residual indication of mercury vapors. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards limit the exposure risks to vapor to be no more than 0.2 mg/L.

Great care must be taken to inspect all the areas before declaring the site now safe for return. Collection of the tools, gloves, boots, etc., can now be done and put into separate containers for disposal. A final protective application from any residual mercury would be to put down a wax like sealant over the surface area, if applicable.

Another common spill situation occurs when mercury has been spilled in a doctor’s office and winds up on carpeting. The same skill and observation to detail must be followed in order to complete the task. Application of the amalgamation powder, and then collection with a mercury only vacuum is the preferred method. The carpet area affected is then cut out and ripped up, with all items, including the vacuum cartridge, contaminated into disposal containers for return to the recycler. Again, as with the hardened surface area, vapor analyzing will indicate if additional treatment is needed.

Occasionally, mercury is spilled outside and into the surrounding soil. Great care must be taken to set up a perimeter around the contaminated area and to collect the soil for cleaning. Soils vary in type and consistency, and commonly, the mercury is found very close to the surface. The soil can be taken off site for reclamation via distillation or by using a combination of forming layers of the amalgamation powder and sand, making a slurry of the soil and water, and passing the mixture through the filter media. The effluent should be tested for mercury contamination and the filter media retained for processing at the recycler.

Mark Ceaser

Mark A. Ceaser is the Director of OMNI/Ajax ,a Pennsylvania manufacturing firm focused on production of spill control materials for hazardous waste cleanup. He holds BA in Management and MBA in Finance & Investment and has written white papers regarding medical waste disposal, bloodborne pathogen handling and the recycling of mercury bearing wastes that have been published in various publications. He co-holds US patents for aerated foamed recycled cellulose fibers particularly as a replacement for clay cat litter and alternative daily landfill cover. Mr. Ceaser has over 20 years of experience in manufacturing spill control materials along with consulting clients on their waste management issues and can be reached on info@omni-ajax.com

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One thought on “Dealing with Mercury Spill

  1. Sorry, you are making a big deal of very little. The volatility of elemental mercury is way less than that of water at room temperature. Look at this EPA page … http://www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0370.htm … and see that there are physiological effects found in some workers who have worked with mercury every day for 10 or more years. This will never be the case when you are in a room where a thermometer is broken.
    Should the spill be cleaned up? yes. But it is not worthy of evacuation of the building and declaration of a state of emergency.

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