Elemental or metallic mercury is a potent neurotoxin, even with small exposures. Avoid exposure by replacing broken thermometers and lamps, and use a spill kit to manage a spill clean-up.
Mercury is a liquid at room temperature and readily evaporates into the air. People can be exposed if instruments or equipment containing mercury break and release mercury-containing dust, liquid or vapor. Health effects can include central nervous system disorders, reproductive effects and kidney damage.
Thermometers, manometers, blood pressure cuffs and many other instruments contain elemental mercury and are easily broken. Small amounts of elemental mercury vapor can be found in ultraviolet lamps and fluorescent lamps.
If you have mercury-containing items in your laboratory, you must have a mercury spill kit. Mercury spill kits are available from numerous vendors such as VWR, Grainger and NewPig. Mercury spill kits are also stocked at Chem Stores and Biochem Stores.
What you can do to stay safe
Inexpensive and safe non-mercury thermometers are widely available, and EH&S recommends their use whenever possible. EH&S is aware that research sometimes requires the use of mercury thermometers, for example in high-temperature applications (above 260°C/500°F), ASTM tests and equipment-specific mercury thermometers.
Recycle your thermometer
Recycle your mercury-filled thermometers through EH&S; we’ll deliver one alcohol-filled thermometer for free in exchange. Our alcohol thermometers are semi-submersible and measure from -20 to 110°C to within 1°. They perform most routine laboratory functions, such as measuring the temperature of water baths or ambient air. And when you drop one, all you need to do is wipe up the liquid and place the broken glass in your lab glass waste bin.
Supplies are limited – only one alcohol thermometer per laboratory. Additional alcohol thermometers, including those that measure higher temperatures, are available through VWR, Fisher Scientific and other vendors.
This offer does not apply to UW Medical Center, which has its own mercury-free mandate and substitute purchasing plan.
Call EH&S for spill advice at 206.543.0467.
Contact EH&S at 206.543.7388 to request mercury vapor monitoring.
Frequently Asked Questions
In an emergency, call 4-5555 on a Harborview Medical Center telephone or 9-1-1 on other phones. For exposure concerns, you can make an appointment to visit the Harborview Medical Center Employee Health Clinic, 206.744.3081.
Custom UW mercury spill kits are sold by VWR via Ariba. Instructions for ordering a spill kit are on the Ordering Spill Kits Focus Sheet. Because this spill kit is a special item for UW, it is not in the general catalog. This spill kit is also available at the Chemistry Stockroom and Biochemistry Stores and costs about $25. Please keep in mind that this spill kit is designed for handling small spills (less than 1 ml) on hard, nonporous surfaces.
Even trace amounts of mercury left behind create a problem. Post-cleanup monitoring must be done by EH&S or the spill contractor to ensure the cleanup is complete. Contact EH&S at 206.543.7388 to request mercury vapor monitoring.