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Metallic Mercury

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What is mercury?
Mercury is a poisonous metal. Mercury is a silvery-grey liquid metal that releases vapors into the air at room temperature. Metallic mercury is also called
‘quick silver’.

Mercury can also be combined with other chemicals to form methyl mercury (the type of mercury found in fish) and mercury salts (contaminants found in some food and cosmetic products). These types of mercury can also be dangerous but are not covered by this fact sheet.

What are mercury vapors?
Mercury vapors are odorless and colorless. Mercury vapors are released whenever metallic mercury is exposed to air. Vapor levels increase when the air temperature increases, when large amounts of
mercury are exposed to air, when mercury is spread over large areas, or when mercury is spilled in rooms with poor ventilation.

What items in the home may contain mercury?
Metallic mercury can be found in fever thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, thermostats, electrical switches, barometers, gauges for plumbing and heating systems, and fluorescent light bulbs. Many newer items do not contain mercury.

How are people exposed to metallic mercury?
If a mercury-containing item breaks, mercury vapors can be released into the air.
The primary way metallic mercury gets into the body is by breathing in mercury vapors. Although mercury may also be harmful if absorbed through the skin, minor contact with metallic mercury does not pose a serious health concern. Swallowing small amounts of metallic mercury has little effect because it passes through the digestive system.

Food or products that contain methyl mercury or mercury salts can be harmful to your health. These non-metallic forms of mercury can be readily absorbed into the body by swallowing or skin contact.

► See See Mercury in Soaps and Creams [Español] 

Mercury and Lead in Herbal Medicine Products

What are the health effects of mercury exposure?
Depending on the amount of exposure, metallic mercury can cause serious health effects. Mercury can damage the brain, other parts of the nervous system, lungs, and kidneys. Symptoms from short-term, high-level exposure may include memory loss, irritability, and tremors; coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath and skin rashes may also occur within
24-hours of high-level exposure. Long-term exposure to low levels of mercury vapors may also result in similar health effects. Young children are particularly at risk for health effects of mercury.

What should I do if a fever thermometer breaks in my home?
You can safely clean up mercury from a fever thermometer by yourself.
  1. First, keep children away from the spill
  2. Open windows to ventilate the room
  3. Avoid tracking mercury around the home, and
  4. Never use a vacuum or broom to clean up the spill. Vacuums and brooms can spread the mercury around the home and increase vapor levels.
  5. Also, remove jewelry before cleanup because mercury may stick to
    other metals.

Clean up the spill as quickly as possible following these directions:

• Use these materials for the cleanup: stiff paper (e.g. index cards), sticky tape, wet paper towels, sealable plastic bags, and a flashlight. Use disposable gloves if you have them handy.

• Carefully pick up any broken glass, wrap the ends with tape and put into a plastic bag.

• Scoop up larger droplets using stiff paper and place in plastic bag.

• Use the sticky tape or wet paper towels to pick up smaller mercury droplets.

• Shine a flashlight around the area to find any droplets that you may have missed. Wipe the spill area with wet paper towels when all visible droplets have been removed.

• Place mercury droplets into a plastic bag along with any other materials you used to clean up the spill. Seal all waste in a single bag.

• Wash your hands with soap and water.

• Call 311 and ask for the Department of Sanitation for instructions on disposal. Do not put mercury down a sink, a drain, or in the toilet or in the regular garbage.

What should I do if a larger amount of mercury spills?
If an item with a larger amount of mercury breaks (such as a thermostat, blood pressure cuff or pressure gauge) take the following steps:

  • Keep people, especially children, away from the spill area.
  • Avoid tracking or spreading the mercury in the home.
  • Open windows to ventilate room.
  • Call 311 to report spill.

Professional help may be needed to clean up the mercury. Mercury spills on carpets, rugs, floors with cracks or upholstery are more difficult to clean up and may also require professional services.

Should I test the indoor air for mercury vapors?
For small spills that are cleaned quickly it is not usually necessary to test the air. If the air in your home is tested after larger spills, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recommends a level of 1 microgram per cubic meter of air (ug/m3) or less as safe and acceptable for occupancy.

Do I need a medical test if there is a mercury spill in my home?
If a small mercury spill is cleaned up quickly, your exposure is likely to be very small and a medical test is not needed. If you and your doctor decide to test for mercury exposure following a metallic mercury spill, a urine mercury test is recommended (rather than a mercury blood test). The New York State Department of Health will contact you if you have been tested and your urine mercury level is at or above 20 micrograms per liter to talk with you about how to lower your level.

What can I do to avoid exposure to metallic mercury?
The best way to avoid exposure to metallic mercury is to avoid using products in the home that contain mercury. Replace products containing mercury with alternatives when possible. Fluorescent bulbs contain small amounts of mercury but because they use less energy, their use is encouraged. Some intact household products such as fever thermometers and burned out fluorescent light bulbs can be brought to a NYC Department of Sanitation special waste collection center for proper disposal. To find a center near you visit their website.

What about mercury exposure in fish and other products?
Mercury also can be found in non-metallic forms in some food (especially large fish), herbal medicine products, and skin lightening products. Using these items can cause health effects related to mercury. Eating fish known to contain methyl mercury is the most common source of mercury exposure for the general public.

► See Eat Fish, Choose Wisely  [Español][中文][한국어][日本語

► See the results of our Asian Market Fish Study

How can I get more information regarding mercury?
Call 311 for more information on the health effects, cleanup, and disposal of mercury.

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