Q&A: Mercury and what to do with small spills

Even though the Lexington Fire Department says the mercury was spilled inside a family’s home was only about to the size of a quarter, they say it's enough to cause serious exposure and forced the crews into their HAZMAT suits and oxygen tanks.

"You can't just run the vacuum cleaner and you're good to go because this stuff splatters everywhere and gets in every kind of crevice. So it's got to be professionally cleaned by a licensed company that is licensed to deal with mercury," stated Battalion Chief Jeff Nantz, of the Lexington Fire Department.

Here answers to some common questions about mercury from the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s mercury information page.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal, which has several forms. The metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. If heated, it is a colorless, odorless gas.

Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or "salts," which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. The most common one, methyl mercury, is produced mainly by microscopic organisms in the water and soil. More mercury in the environment can increase the amounts of methyl mercury that these small organisms make.

Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda, and is also used in thermometers, dental fillings, and batteries. Mercury salts are sometimes used in skin lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments.

How can mercury affect my health?

The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methyl mercury and metallic mercury vapors are more harmful than other forms, because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. Exposures to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.

Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.

How does mercury affect children?

Very young children are more sensitive to mercury than adults. Mercury in the mother's body passes to the fetus and may accumulate there. It can also pass to a nursing infant through breast milk. However, the benefits of breast-feeding may be greater than the possible adverse effects of mercury in breast milk.

Mercury's harmful effects that may be passed from the mother to the fetus include brain damage, mental retardation, in-coordination, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak. Children poisoned by mercury may develop problems of their nervous and digestive systems, and kidney damage.

How can families reduce the risk of exposure to mercury?

Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs. Do not vacuum up spilled mercury, because it will vaporize and increase exposure. If a large amount of mercury has been spilled, contact your health department. Teach children not to play with shiny, silver liquids.

Properly dispose of older medicines that contain mercury. Keep all mercury-containing medicines away from children.

Pregnant women and children should keep away from rooms where liquid mercury has been used.

Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your public health or natural resources department.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to mercury?

Tests are available to measure mercury levels in the body. Blood or urine samples are used to test for exposure to metallic mercury and to inorganic forms of mercury. Mercury in whole blood or in scalp hair is measured to determine exposure to methyl mercury. Your doctor can take samples and send them to a testing laboratory.

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