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What To Know About Household Mercury

By Robert Korpella

  • Mercury is present in a surprising number of common household items. You can reduce your exposure to this potent toxin, and learn the right way to react to a mercury spill in your home.

    Mercury is the only metal that is a liquid at room temperature. Its properties make it a good material for temperature sensors and other devices. As long as mercury is properly contained, it poses no threat to people. Once in the open, however, mercury and its vapors can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin, posing a serious health hazard that can affect your heart, kidneys, brain and lungs. In the environment, mercury can damage or kill wildlife, and pollute streams, lakes and drinking water. Because common products in the home can contain mercury, you may want to consider choosing mercury-free alternatives.

    The Trouble with Thermostats
    Perhaps the largest single source of mercury in your home is the glass vial in an older thermostat. Generally, they are round with a dial indicator, and contain three to five grams of mercury. Replacing these older devices with digital models immediately reduces the risk of exposure to mercury in the event the glass vial should break. Proper disposal of any container that holds mercury is critical. "The real danger of mercury is that it bioaccumulates in the food chain," says Loring Bullard, author and former executive director of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Bioaccumulation occurs when living organisms take in and accumulate a toxic substance faster than their bodies can get rid of it. "Dumping this material down a drain introduces it into the watershed, where it enters the food chain. We're part of that chain."

    A Variety of Other Measuring Instruments Have Mercury
    Glass thermometers may also contain mercury. These include thermometers used for making candy, setting oven temperatures and deep-frying, as well as for fever detection. Silver material in the bulb is a telltale sign of a mercury thermometer. If you use a barometer for detecting weather patterns, or a medical manometer for measuring blood pressure, check them for the same silvery material. A red liquid enclosed in the glass tube is typically alcohol, a safe alternative to mercury. You can properly dispose of mercury-filled instruments and replace them with devices that use alcohol, or with digital instruments.

    Be Careful with Batteries
    Most batteries in the United States don't contain mercury. However, some button-style batteries — those that power watches and small electronic devices — and specialty batteries used in medical equipment, still contain the metal. These batteries are sealed but the housings can eventually rust, allowing the mercury inside to escape into the environment. So when the batteries wear out, take them to a recycling center rather than throwing them in the trash. Many electronics stores and other retailers accept old batteries for disposal.

    Personal Care and Other Items
    A number of items in the home may contain mercury. Fungicides, disinfectants, insecticides and antiseptics may include mercury compounds among their ingredients. Mercury is also present in some brands of household pharmaceuticals, such as nasal sprays and eye drops. In pharmaceuticals, mercury may be mixed with other elements to form a compound used as a preservative. Look for chemical names such as thimerosal, phenylmercuric acetate, mercuric nitrate or phenylmercuric nitrate when checking for mercury in personal care products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a list of medications and personal care products that contain mercury. While the agency does not say whether specific hazards exist with these products, it provides the list as a resource for people who wish to remove all forms of mercury from their homes.

    Light Bulbs with Mercury
    The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 favors fluorescent bulbs over incandescent lighting as a means of saving energy. Energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, contain a small amount of mercury — about four milligrams each. So if a fluorescent bulb is broken, it should be treated as a mercury spill and special steps taken to avoid contamination and dispose of it safely.

    If a Mercury Spill Occurs
    When a CFL or other mercury container breaks, you should refer to the instructions on the Environmental Protection Agency website. The agency offers detailed procedures for cleaning up a spill and keeping household members, including pets, safe from exposure to mercury and its vapors.

    Reading labels and comparing products can help you avoid bringing mercury into your home. In many cases, you can choose alternative products that don't contain mercury. While you may not be able to completely rid your home of this potentially dangerous metal, you can take steps to minimize the amount present. Exposure to the dangers of mercury occurs when it is no longer properly contained. But a fast response with safe cleanup methods can reduce the risk.