Cleanup of Mercury Spills

Metallic mercury has high chronic toxicity and can cause significant damage to the central nervous system if prolonged exposure occurs. Mercury has a relatively high vapor pressure at room temperature and high airborne levels can accumulate if the spill is not thoroughly cleaned up. Spills involving a mercury volume greater than that contained in one to two laboratory thermometers (a few millimeters) should be cleaned up using dedicated equipment and followed up with air monitoring to ensure adequate cleanup. For mercury spills greater than this quantity, or if the spill occurs in an area with an elevated temperature (such as an oven or heating block), contact EH&S at 327-5040 for assistance with cleanup and air monitoring.

  1. Isolate the immediate spill area to avoid traffic and spreading of the mercury.
  2. If the mercury spill is in a confined area (poor ventilation), ventilate the area as much as possible by opening windows, using fans, etc.
  3. While wearing goggles, lab coat, and chemical resistant gloves, pick up any broken glass and debris using tongs or tweezers.
  4. Consolidate the mercury as much as possible using thin cardboard or plastic.
  5. Pick up the mercury using a suction device. A filter flask hooked to a vacuum source at the side arm, with Tygon tubing and a Pasteur pipette at the inlet can be used. Commercial mercury vacuum systems are available. DO NOT USE AN ORDINARY HOUSE VACUUM TO PICK UP MERCURY.
  6. After the gross contamination is picked up, sprinkle the affected area with mercury adsorbent. The adsorbent forms an amalgam that “ties up” the mercury and reduces vaporization. The resulting amalgam material can be swept up for disposal.
  7. Place the recovered mercury and any contaminated clean up materials in a plastic bag, tape the top of the bag shut, place this bag in a second plastic bag for disposal, and tape the top of the second bag shut. Label the outside bag as “Mercury Waste.”
  8. If the amount of mercury spilled is greater than that contained in one to two laboratory thermometers (more than a few milliliters), the spill is located in a confined area that cannot be ventilated, or if proper clean up materials are not available, call 784-1987 (EH&S) for assistance. If a mercury spill involving one of these scenarios occurs during off-hours, secure the affected area, post warning signs, and evacuate the area. Notify EH&S as soon as possible during normal working hours. If immediate EH&S assistance is needed during off-hours, contact the University of Nevada, Reno Police (334-2121) and request that they contact EH&S.