Household Hazardous Waste - Mercury

Options for reducing, reusing, and recycling mercury containing items. Details about how to handle a mercury spill and how to dispose of mercury safely.

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General Information About Mercury

What is Mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that can be found throughout our environment.  Mercury is extracted from an ore called cinnabar.  Human activities, such as using mercury to manufacture certain products, have increased the amount of mercury that cycles freely through our air, soils, and water.

Did You Know?

The phrase "mad hatter" originated in the early 19th century, when felt hats were popular.  Inexpensive felt hats were made from fur treated with a mercury compound.  Hatters worked with this solution in poorly ventilated shops, and the accumulation of mercury in their bodies resulted in severe disorders.

We now know that mercury is a poison, which, in severe cases, can bring about mental and physical disabilities.  Why is mercury an issue for you?  Health problems caused by mercury depend on how much has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to mercury.

People are at risk when they are exposed to spilled mercury, such as from a broken thermometer.  Elemental (metallic) mercury and its compounds are toxic and exposure to excessive levels can permanently damage or fatally injure the brain and kidneys.  Elemental mercury can also be absorbed through the skin and cause allergic reactions.  Ingestion of mercury compounds can cause severe renal and gastrointestinal toxicity.  For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development.

Symptoms of Mercury Poisoning

  • Impairment of the peripheral vision
  • Disturbances in sensations ("pins and needles" feelings, numbness) usually in the hands, feet, and mouth
  • Lack of coordination of movements, such as writing
  • Impairment of speech, hearing, and balance
  • Muscle weakness
  • Skin rashes
  • Mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Mental disturbance

Items That May Contain Mercury

  • barometers
  • button cell batteries
  • blood-pressure instruments
  • dental fillings
  • fluorescent lamps
  • meters
  • neon-type lamps or signs
  • old pesticides
  • old paint
  • pressure gauges
  • relays
  • sprinkler system contacts
  • switches (silent light switches in automobiles, clothing irons, and space heaters)
  • temperature gauges
  • thermometers
  • thermostats

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

REDUCE

The best alternative to managing mercury waste is to avoid creating it in the first place.  Try the following tips for reducing mercury in your home:

  • Purchase digital or red alcohol thermometers and barometers
  • Choose an electronic or mechanical thermostat
  • Avoid synthetic forms of pest and fungus control
  • When purchasing batteries, avoid mercury air, silver oxide, and alkaline manganese batteries
  • Ask your dentist for composite fillings, which do not contain mercury

REUSE 

Mercury in batteries - many types of batteries, even those labeled "mercury-free" may contain trace amounts of mercury.  Purchase rechargeable batteries which can be used over and over, and are easily recyclable at the end of their useful life.  Recycling options for batteries are posted on our website at http://stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/street/refuse/recycle/batteries.cfm.

RECYCLE 

Mercury in CFLs (compact fluorescent bulbs) - although CFLs typically contain up to 5 milligrams of mercury, they reduce your energy use, which minimizes the mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants that illuminate the bulbs.  When the bulbs finally burn out, they can be recycled and the mercury is recovered.  For a list of light bulb recycling options in St. Louis, visit our webpage http://stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/street/refuse/recycle/bulbs.cfm.

Mercury in electronics - many electronics manufactured today contain mercury.  For a list of electronics recyclers in the St. Louis Area, visit e-Cycle St. Louis' webpage at www.ecyclestlouis.org.

Mercury containing thermostats - http://www.theromostat-recycle.org is a network of heating and cooling businesses that accept intact mercury thermostats for free recycling. Visit the website for locations.

How To Handle A Mercury Spill

All mercury spills, regardless of quantity, should be treated seriously.  When liquid mercury is spilled, it forms droplets that can accumulate in the tiniest of spaces and then emit vapors into the air, which can be highly toxic when inhaled.

If you have a small mercury spill (e.g. broken thermometer), put on a pair of gloves and consolidate the mercury droplets using a stiff piece of paper.  The remaining small droplets can be picked up with adhesive tape or a damp paper towel.  DO NOT use a vacuum to remove the mercury.  Place the mercury and other contaminated items in an airtight jar or sturdy plastic bag.  Open windows to ventilate the room.  Consult the list of organizations below for safe disposal options.

Resources For Mercury Disposal

Missouri Department of Natural Resources Environmental Services Program
Web:  www.dnr.mo.gov/env/mercury-cleanup.htm
Emergency Response 24-hour Hotline:  573.634.2436
Note:  Hotline staff can provide technical assistance with cleanup or disposal questions.  On-scene cleanup and air monitoring assistance may be provided for large mercury spills.  The department may also provide direct assistance with disposal of elemental mercury.  Do not hesitate to call the hotline with questions. 
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