Learn from my hazmat mistake (aka mea culpa)

We had an “incident” the other night. After a rare walk together, we were getting ready for a late dinner (8:30-ish) when “it” happened. An innocent trip to the medicine cabinet happened to dislodge the thermometer case, causing it to fly out of the cabinet. The thermometer proceeded to fly out of the case (the same case you could barely get the thermometer out of when you wanted to), scattering glass and mercury all over the tile floor.

Are you kidding me?

Tired, hungry, and pissed, I reached for the vacuum cleaner.

Big no-no. “Stupid Human Alert” alarms should have gone off. Or at least a good “Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!”

My rationale: The sweeper has a bag. I can sweep it up and throw the bag away and be done with it.

So I proceeded to sweep and sweep, sending Mike outside to shake out the scatter rugs (which he did and also diligently swept them with the vacuum cleaner before putting them back). After 10 or 15 minutes, we were back to our turkey burgers and home-made herbed potato salad.

Pretty much everything about our approach was wrong, wrong, wrong, as we learned after researching the issue after the fact (after we ate).

According to the EPA:

What Never to Do with a Mercury Spill

  • Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
  • Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
  • Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
  • Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded. By “direct contact,” we mean that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing. For example:
    • if you broke a mercury thermometer and some of elemental mercury beads came in contact with your clothing, or
    • if you broke a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) so that broken glass and other material from the bulb, including mercury-containing powder, came into contact with your clothing.

You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, like the clothing you happened to be wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.

  • Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.

What we should have done:

What to Do if a Mercury Thermometer Breaks

  • Have everyone else leave the area; don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out. Make sure all pets are removed from the area. Open all windows and doors to the outside; shut all doors to other parts of the house.
  • DO NOT allow children to help you clean up the spill.
  • Mercury can be cleaned up easily from the following surfaces: wood, linoleum, tile and any similarly smooth surfaces.
  • If a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away in accordance with the disposal means outlined below. Only cut and remove the affected portion of the contaminated carpet for disposal.

Cleanup Instructions

  1. Put on rubber, nitrile or latex gloves.
  2. If there are any broken pieces of glass or sharp objects, pick them up with care. Place all broken objects on a paper towel. Fold the paper towel and place in a zip lock bag. Secure the bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
  3. Locate visible mercury beads. Use a squeegee or cardboard to gather mercury beads. Use slow sweeping motions to keep mercury from becoming uncontrollable. Take a flashlight, hold it at a low angle close to the floor in a darkened room and look for additional glistening beads of mercury that may be sticking to the surface or in small cracked areas of the surface. Note: Mercury can move surprising distances on hard-flat surfaces, so be sure to inspect the entire room when “searching.”
  4. Use the eyedropper to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully squeeze mercury onto a damp paper towel. Place the paper towel in a zip lock bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
  5. After you remove larger beads, put shaving cream on top of small paint brush and gently “dot” the affected area to pick up smaller hard-to-see beads. Alternatively, use duct tape to collect smaller hard-to-see beads. Place the paint brush or duct tape in a zip lock bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
  6. OPTIONAL STEP: It is OPTIONAL to use commercially available powdered sulfur to absorb the beads that are too small to see. The sulfur does two things: (1) it makes the mercury easier to see since there may be a color change from yellow to brown and (2) it binds the mercury so that it can be easily removed and suppresses the vapor of any missing mercury. Where to get commercialized sulfur? It may be supplied as mercury vapor absorbent in mercury spill kits, which can be purchased from laboratory, chemical supply and hazardous materials response supply manufacturers. Note: Powdered sulfur may stain fabrics a dark color. When using powdered sulfur, do not breathe in the powder as it can be moderately toxic. Additionally, users should read and understand product information before use.
  7. If you choose not to use this option, you may want to request the services of a contractor who has monitoring equipment to screen for mercury vapors. Consult your local environmental or health agency to inquire about contractors in your area. Place all materials used with the cleanup, including gloves, in a trash bag. Place all mercury beads and objects into the trash bag. Secure trash bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
  8. Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority or your local fire department for proper disposal in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
  9. Remember to keep the area well ventilated to the outside (i.e., windows open and fans in exterior windows running) for at least 24 hours after your successful cleanup. Continue to keep pets and children out of cleanup area. If sickness occurs, seek medical attention immediately.


After reading all this and cursing our stupidity, we went back at it. Using the flashlight, we could see all the tiny beads of mercury we had left behind. The duct tape did a pretty good job of capturing them, but sometimes they would even fall off the tape. We worked at this a good 15 minutes or more, discarding the duct tape into a self-closing bag.

We didn’t throw away our rugs, though it is recommended to do so.

We didn’t throw away our vacuum cleaner, though it is recommended to do so (it’s only 6 months old; of course I didn’t use the old one that I’m ready to throw away anyway). Instead, I plan to follow other online advice to run it outside for at least an hour, keeping the same bag in it. Then discarding the bag, properly labeled of course. I haven’t done this yet — maybe tomorrow will be the day to annoy the neighbors by running a vacuum cleaner outside for an hour or more.

We didn’t throw away any clothes or shoes.

(Are we playing with fire, here?)

Prior to this, my only experience with mercury was hearing stories about my brother swallowing mercury (!) when he was a child. (He claims he can remember how it felt going down — plop, plop, plop.) My mother’s frantic call to the doctor yielded an interesting fact — the mercury would pass through his body largely intact without being absorbed. More dangerous are the vapors from mercury, which we were dealing with as we cleaned up the broken thermometer. (I also remember this same brother having some liquid mercury in an old prescription bottle that we would occasionally play with! Oh what my mother didn’t know…)

So….long story short: Learn from my mistakes. If you still have mercury thermometers in the house, think about disposing of them (safely) and going digital. Funny, I had first purchased a digital thermometer years ago, but when it didn’t work (battery issues or something) I bought a good old “regular” one. I guess it’s back to digital for me — hopefully improved in the last 10 years or so.

But wait, isn’t there some toxic issue with discarding batteries? That’s another Web search for another time…I can only handle so much environmental and personal endangerment at one time.

Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.
~ Carl G. Jung


  1. WARREN said,

    Sunday, July 12, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Boy, I hope your brother didn’t develop any abnormalities!

  2. WritingbyEar said,

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Develop? No. He was abnormal from birth.

  3. robbie said,

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 11:29 am

    For crying out loud, where did all that mumbo jumbo come from? Must have been Big Brother (oh, I mean our concerned government). I remember growing up how exciting it was to hear that someone had broken a thermometer (it didn’t happen very often). We would gather at the site and play with the beads or the mercury was collected in a jar and taken to someone’s house. Only the big kids got to keep the bigger beads! As far as I know, we are all still alive (and somewhat normal). And after playing with the mercury, we would go and eat paint chips!!!!!!!

  4. WritingbyEar said,

    Monday, July 13, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I certainly like your version better than the EPA’s! Still haven’t run the vacuum cleaner outside for an hour…getting pretty dusty and furry in here… Oh, and I just got done NordicTracking in the basement — the radon exhaust system runs 24-7, thank goodness…(and is the reason we don’t open one of our bedroom windows at night, what with the noise from the radon fan echoing in the plastic pipe that runs up the house next to the window and all…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: