Mercury in Your Home: Health Risks, Identification, and Proper Disposal
Mercury is an element that occurs naturally in a variety of settings. It is a common element in rocks but is also highly present in soil and water, meaning people are very likely to encounter some exposure to mercury. Because the element does not leave the body once people are exposed to it, it can accumulate over time. Like many other environmental toxins, the effects of mercury's exposure relates closely to the amount. Someone who is exposed to a tiny amount of mercury on a regular basis may not see any observable problems until they have been ingesting it, inhaling it, or touching it for years. By comparison, a person who is exposed to a large amount, due to a residential or industrial spill, could suffer serious harm almost immediately.
Because of mercury’s variable range of possible effects, as well as the number of items containing mercury in the home, people should take care to understand the risks of mercury poisoning. It can be fatal or cause serious, long-term damage to the nervous system, although those who get a smaller amount of exposure may have more minor effects. Knowing which symptoms to look for as well as which common household tools and devices are likely to contain mercury is key to helping homeowners manage the risk for themselves and other members of their household.
Table of Contents
- Mercury and Your Health
- Mercury Poisoning
- Mercury in the Home
- How to Safely Dispose of Mercury
- Other Helpful Resources
Mercury and Your Health
It may be difficult to imagine how a naturally occurring element can cause so many health problems. However, mercury and other elements like lead can accumulate in the body and cause problems. Specifically, mercury exposure has the potential to trigger long-term issues in the brain, kidneys, and lungs, and there are two different ways that people can encounter this exposure. The first is methylmercury, due to consumption. The second is elemental mercury, a factor of environmental exposure. Over time, with enough exposure, anybody could start to show symptoms of these effects.
Being at the top of the food chain has provided humans with a variety of benefits. There are also drawbacks, however. Methylmercury is an element that accumulates primarily in fish. Although certain species are more likely to have higher mercury levels, it is also a factor of the environment. Fish found in waters near mines, or coal-burning plants that dump methylmercury, will have higher levels. Additionally, larger fish that eat smaller fish contaminated with methylmercury will have higher levels of the elements themselves. When people eat these fish, they will accumulate that exposure in their own body systems.
Methylmercury can be damaging to people in almost any demographic, but infants and children are particularly vulnerable. In fact, pregnant mothers who eat fish or shellfish high in mercury risk developmental problems with the fetus, which is why experts recommend they avoid eating certain kinds of fish while pregnant. As a neurotoxin, methylmercury is associated with:
- Muscle weakness
- Cognitive or physical impairments
- Poor neurological response in the hands and feet
This depends heavily on the level of exposure, which means people who eat more fish or shellfish containing mercury are more likely to sustain long-term or permanent effects.
Elemental (Metallic) Mercury
Although elemental mercury and methylmercury are somewhat related, they are not exactly the same thing. Methylmercury comes from tiny organisms that take elemental mercury found in soil or water and convert it into an organic mercury compound. Elemental mercury is not man-made, but most sources of exposure to elemental or metallic mercury come through man-made means.
As an element at room temperature, mercury is a silver-white, odorless liquid. In centuries past, people referred to it as quicksilver. Although the element may be present as liquid, the way people are exposed to it in most cases is as a vapor. For example, someone may break an old thermometer containing mercury. As the element vaporizes, it can be inhaled, which makes it much more difficult to prevent exposure than it would if the element simply remained as a liquid.
Most of the time, exposure to metallic mercury triggers lung problems because it is inhaled. People may observe neurological problems like headaches, insomnia, or the inability to complete simple tasks. At the highest levels of exposure, kidney issues are common.
Because mercury can be so toxic to people in a variety of forms, any exposure may be considered risky. High levels of exposure, or exposure in small amounts by people who are vulnerable to the toxin, can be considered mercury poisoning. Most people are exposed to mercury through one of these methods:
- Organic compounds, like the methylmercury found in fish
- Liquid metallic mercury in older household and industrial products
- Vaporized mercury
When people are exposed to mercury, the element binds to certain enzymes in the body. This affects the cells directly, which is what allows the toxin to create such damage to a variety of body systems.
The way the poisoning affects the system depends on the way it arrives. People who eat methylmercury in fish will have a different profile of side effects than people who inhale metallic mercury. Testing is important to confirm a diagnosis and create a treatment plan to mitigate the damage. Because many symptoms can be similar to other conditions related to environmental exposure, people may need to evaluate their habits and their own surroundings to target the most likely causes.
Inhalation Mercury Poisoning
Many cases of mercury poisoning occur through inhalation. On a broad scale, industrial accidents often cause the problem. For example, coal-burning plants generate large amounts of mercury that people living or working nearby may inhale. Additionally, the products in home, medical, and industrial settings may contain mercury. If they are used or stored improperly, they can break and release metallic mercury. This liquid state might also turn into a vapor, which can be easily inhaled.
Heat changes the rate at which liquid mercury turns into a vapor. At room temperature, it will vaporize slowly. Under high heat, it turns into a vapor very quickly. People who break an old thermometer or valve containing mercury are already at high risk for exposure, because they probably are not wearing protective gear to prevent it. In heat, the inhalation occurs more quickly, and the long-term effects to the lungs and brain can be severe.
Ingestion and Skin Contact Mercury Poisoning
Although mercury poisoning can happen through a variety of ways, ingestion is the most common. Skin contact is another method that people should be concerned about, especially if they work with mercury-containing tools or live in areas where mercury levels are high. Methylmercury usually occurs in water and soil, so it makes sense that the way humans get exposed to it is through consumption.
Similar to lead poisoning, mercury poisoning often comes from long-term exposure to the element. The body cannot excrete it, which means that it keeps accumulating for years. Fish that live longer lives, especially those that eat other fish, have higher levels of mercury. The exposure creates a snowball of mercury poisoning up the food chain.
By comparison, skin contact with mercury presents effects immediately. People are most likely to encounter this type of exposure by handling items containing the element, like old batteries.
Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning
As a general rule, people can expect to notice the neurological effects of mercury poisoning first. Although these symptoms may be typical in adults in general, a sudden onset of neurological concerns should prompt people to consider seeking medical attention. The most common symptoms include:
- Disorders like anxiety or depression
- Numbness or tremors
- Memory concerns
Of course, the way these symptoms present depends on the age and general health of the person. For example, adults are more likely to notice things like a lack of coordination or a feeling of pins and needles in their hands. Infants and children may not notice the same problems or may not be able to express them clearly to parents and caregivers. Family members may notice difficulties developing speech and language or a struggle to develop fine motor skills.
Neurological symptoms may be an indication of mercury poisoning whether it is organic or elemental. Additionally, people may encounter other problems as a result of exposure to metallic mercury. These include respiratory difficulties, muscle atrophy, and problems with the kidneys. Cognitive issues tend to present first, while issues with other body systems usually indicate long-term or heavy exposure.
How to Test for Mercury Poisoning
When it comes to diagnosing mercury poisoning, there are a few obstacles that many people have to clear in order to obtain the right information. First, mercury exposure often does not present significant, noticeable side effects in the first instance: unless somebody was exposed to a massive amount of mercury all at once, as they would in the case of swallowing a battery, they may not have any symptoms at all. Second, many of the most common symptoms have other causes that may be harder to rule out. For example, anxiety or irritability are very common conditions in adults. Therefore, it can be difficult for doctors to pinpoint the cause if it does not arise immediately.
In some cases, especially as the exposure level rises, it is easier for people who have been exposed as well as their doctors to recognize a significant change. Side effects like tremors are much less common, especially in children or younger adults. In these instances, doctors can request a test of the patient’s blood and urine, which will identify many possible factors that are concealed in the blood or digestive system. If someone has accumulated a high amount of mercury in their body, one of these tests will indicate that.
Treatment for Mercury Poisoning
There is no way for patients to quickly undo the damage caused by their exposure to mercury. However, the way they receive treatment for mercury poisoning depends on the way they were exposed to it. For example, if someone sustains a high level of mercury exposure because they swallowed a battery or touched inorganic mercury with bare skin, the first step for responders is to prevent the source from continuing to promote exposure, which includes providing a careful and thorough way of removing the mercury from the environment. Medical providers must take care to avoid exposing themselves to the toxin at the same time, which may include removing the patient immediately for treatment, bagging up their clothing, or securing the source of the exposure for further examination.
After the initial crisis, or for patients with long-term exposure to methylmercury, the most common treatment route is to attempt to minimize the damage. For example, someone who inhaled mercury may need to undergo respiratory treatments to protect their lungs from further damage. A dialysis machine may have the ability to bind to the mercury in cells and remove it. People with a high level of exposure and serious long-term effects to their neurological and other systems often need ongoing treatments for chronic conditions.
Mercury in the Home
Before people understood the relationship between mercury and the effects of long-term exposure, it was an important part in a large number of things around the home. Most people probably know that mercury used to be a primary component of oral thermometers and batteries — even some things manufactured recently. Because the element is liquid at room temperature, the exposure can be severe when these items break or are otherwise mishandled. Knowing where to look helps people figure out which things they may need to inspect or carefully remove from the home. This allows them to make a plan for safe disposal.
Inspecting Gauges and Devices
The thing about old, toxic tools and devices in the home is they often remain there for a very long time. If people have no reason to suspect the item they have is putting them at serious risk, then they may put it at the back of the cabinet or leave it on a shelf for decades. Although mercury is not a common component of many household goods nowadays, most homes built in the 20th century or earlier could possibly have several gauges and other devices containing the element. Fortunately, people can often identify the presence of liquid mercury by looking for a liquid that moves inside the gauge or device. For example, if someone has an old barometer hanging on the wall, they may be able to see the mercury moving inside the gauge.
Other products containing liquid mercury may be more difficult to find or less common in the home. Old gas-fired appliances typically used mercury as a sensor that would trigger a shut-off valve, which would prevent the appliance from releasing deadly gas and carbon monoxide if it was not converted to heat. Similarly, many meters used for home and industrial applications relied on mercury for the gauge. People may have to examine parts of the home they have not cleared in a long time, like the garage or a shed, to find them.
Locating Mercury in Home Products
Although the conventional knowledge is that mercury was much more commonly used decades ago, there are a variety of common and newer household products that may also contain the element, meaning homeowners may need to do additional research to figure out which ones they are more likely to encounter. Besides gauges and devices that use the liquid mercury as a means of measurement, there are many ways manufacturers have used mercury over time.
People might have to think creatively about the ways their home systems work in order to find possible sources of mercury. For example, many appliances contain gauges or sensors that trigger a reaction, including:
- Gas-fired appliances
- Chest freezers
- Washing machines and dryers
- Space heaters
Homeowners who are unsure if their appliances may contain liquid mercury should search the user manual or consider contacting the manufacturer directly.
Mercury has been such a useful component of household goods that people may come up with a long list before they are done. It is wise to start with older appliances and antiques, as they are more likely to have mercury and also more likely to wear down or break, which increases the likelihood of exposure. Additionally, homeowners should consider certain types of modern light bulbs, button or coin batteries, electronics, and even face creams.
In fact, mercury is so common that people can find it in the most unlikely of places. Some jewelry makers have taken advantage of the interesting look of quicksilver, encasing it in glass for people to wear. Additionally, mercury was a typical component of old dental amalgam fillings; someone who has silver fillings in their teeth may encounter a small amount of mercury vapor exposure if the filling is removed.
Avoiding Contact with Liquid Mercury
To avoid mercury exposure, mitigation has to be taken with extra care. People cannot take their old thermometers or coin batteries and throw them in the kitchen trash can, as this could lead to a serious and possibly deadly exposure of liquid mercury. Instead, they should make a careful plan to identify these items with as little contact as possible. Something that is undisrupted is less likely to break, leak, or spill while people are making a plan to get rid of it for good. In many cases, this may be as simple as replacing it with a modern choice that does not use mercury. In other cases, it takes more work.
How to Safely Dispose of Mercury
Most of the time, people are better off if they can remove the most common and serious sources of mercury in their homes. Figuring out the best way to dispose of it depends on the item and how likely it is to break in transport. For example, light bulbs are much more of a possible problem during movement than a small gauge inside an appliance. In most cases, packaging the item carefully makes a big difference in the likelihood of exposure. People should also take care to protect themselves from accidental inhalation or skin contact during the task.
To start, people should assume what they want to do most is minimize their own risk of exposure. Items containing mercury that have been sitting around the home for decades may be safer in the short-term without movement. However, this is not a viable long-term strategy, which means that people must learn how to move and package belongings containing mercury so they can dispose of them safely. This process is important for people who are preparing to take the items very soon and those who must wait for an opportunity to get rid of them.
First, people should acknowledge the possibility of the item leaking. Therefore, they should place the item inside a zipper-top plastic bag, so if it does break or leak, it will spread to the bag and not to the air. Second, people should place the bag inside an airtight plastic container. For added protection, they can fill the container with a dense but soft filler material like cat litter or newspapers to ensure a softer ride and the ability to absorb liquid mercury if the other preventives fail. The final step involves sealing the container so that it cannot open by accident.
Disposing of Mercury
Disposing of mercury can be relatively simple or quite difficult, depending on the item in question and its condition. People should consult the guidelines of their local landfill to find out whether mercury-containing things are allowed. Otherwise, they may want to contact the manufacturer of the product or appliance to see if they offer some kind of recycling or disposal service. Additionally, many parts of the country offer designated recycling facilities that are trained to safely handle items that contain mercury.
If the items in the home that contain mercury are not in good condition, or are likely to break when they are moved, people may want to call in a professional to perform a more thorough mitigation of the problem. This may or may not be necessary, depending on the size of the equipment and how likely it is to leak or shift during the disposal process. In some cases, using personal protective equipment to minimize inhalation and immediate skin contact may be sufficient to transport the item at a lower risk, if it is not broken.
Light bulbs in particular require special care for disposal. This is not just because many types of light bulbs contain mercury, but also because light bulbs are made out of glass, are very fragile, and more likely to break. Fluorescent light bulbs often contain mercury in a gas form. This applies to the tube-shaped fluorescent lights that people might see in commercial retail spaces as well as to the more common and recent compact fluorescent bulbs. The way people need to dispose of these depends on the style of light. If people are unsure what kind of light bulb they have, they may need to contact a designated light bulb disposal facility.
Many states set guidelines on the way people must dispose of light bulbs. This is not just because a bunch of broken glass in the landfill is an unwise idea, but because light bulbs are exceedingly easy to break. Once broken, fluorescent light bulbs of either style can release mercury vapor. Someone who is not handling the material with care, and who is not wearing personal protective equipment, is more likely to sustain a larger amount of mercury poisoning by inhalation. Because throwing away fluorescent light bulbs is not legal in many areas, those regions usually have designated recycling facilities. Therefore, people should plan to contact the facilities to find out how they should transport the light bulbs or if they should arrange for pick up. In some cases, the recycling facility is located in the same space where people can buy those light bulbs, such as a home improvement store.
In areas where people are allowed to throw away fluorescent bulbs, people should still use common sense for disposal. This may mean wrapping the light bulb in something soft and protective like newspaper. Placing it inside a box with a tight seal can slow the progress of the vapor if the bulb breaks, which will help to cushion the light bulb during transit and make it less likely to break in an area where people might inhale the mercury vapor. As a long-term prevention strategy, homeowners may want to shift to using LED bulbs for the home, as these bulbs do not contain mercury and last for 10-15 years. As a result, people are less likely to need to replace them with a new bulb and find a way to dispose of them safely.
If a Spill Occurs
How people should handle a spill depends on whether they are anticipating the possibility or are caught unprepared. In both cases, the goal is to minimize exposure. When people have identified a series of items they need to remove, they should create a spill kit in case something breaks or leaks. A spill kit is relatively easy to assemble from items already available in the home, including:
- Plastic bag
- Medicine or eye dropper
- Paper towels
- Piece of flat cardboard
People must act quickly to clean it up and stop the rate of exposure. The first thing they should do is clear the room and open windows and doors to ensure airflow. It is vital to identify where the mercury has gone so people can avoid touching it or stepping in it and making it harder to clean up. If the spill happens on a flat surface like a table in a small amount, then they may be able to clean it up by using an eyedropper. Exposure to mercury from a broken light bulb can be managed by putting on gloves, carefully picking up the pieces and placing them on the cardboard, and then putting everything in a zip-top plastic bag.
Larger spills may not be as easy to clean up. If the mercury lands on a flat flooring surface, people may be able to identify precisely where it has fallen. Mercury soaking into carpet will almost certainly require replacement of the flooring or a patch service. In the case of a large spill, people should plan to call poison control and evacuate the building until it is declared safe to return.
Mistakes to Avoid
The last thing people want to do in the case of a mercury spill is to continue the exposure or spread the mercury around. For example, people should not use means to clean it up that cannot be placed into a plastic bag and removed for disposal and should never vacuum a hard or soft surface, as this may encourage the liquid to convert into a vapor.
Similarly, if people are able to pick up the mercury using an eyedropper, they should place the eyedropper in a plastic bag and not release the liquid down the drain. It only takes a tiny amount of liquid mercury to cause serious harm. If someone breaks a gauge and mercury leaks onto their clothing, then the clothing must be bagged for disposal and not washed.
In the end, people must realize their chances of encountering mercury at some point are quite high, as no one can live a normal life and expect to completely avoid exposure to mercury. Instead, they should plan to take an analytical perspective on their risk and how they can best manage it. Someone who is planning to expand their family or who already has significant problems with their lungs or neurological system may need to take special care when evaluating the items in their home that may contain mercury.
As in all cases, minimizing exposure and the harm posed by the level of exposure is the ideal approach. Because people cannot avoid it entirely, they should instead seek to learn and remember the common symptoms of mercury poisoning. Planning to take special care to package and dispose of mercury-laden belongings prevents the element from spreading harm and risk to others. Acting quickly to mitigate a spill and seeking medical help after known exposure can reduce the amount of damage people sustain as a result. Thoughtful investment ensures a safer environment for everyone.
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