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Disclaimer: This article is based on publicly available information and was written for general
information only. The article does not purport to be definitive and is not a substitute for advice
from a general practitioner, qualified physician or counsellor.

Properties and Hazards
Liquid mercury produces enough vapour at room temperatures to poison people who inhale the
vapour for a period of time. At 20C, the equilibrium concentration of mercury vapour is about 150
times the Threshold Limit Value for humans (which is 0.1 mg/m3, and is the maximum atmospheric
concentration for a normal working week).
It is very difficult to pour mercury without splashing or spilling. Falling drops break into small
droplets, many of which are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Such small droplets will not
agglomerate, so that decontamination of an area where mercury has been spilt is extremely difficult.
The vapour pressure of mercury increases rapidly with temperature, that at 100C being 200 times
that at 20C. As a consequence, ovens, electric radiators, motors, and other warm or hot apparatus
greatly increase the mercury vapour concentration if droplets are left on or near such equipment. A
typically dangerous situation exists when a mercury thermometer breaks in a heating oven, the
design of which usually makes decontamination very difficult. Dial thermometers with stems must
be used to monitor oven temperatures.
Mercury can be absorbed through the skin, as well as by inhalation. There is no single diagnostic test
for mercury poisoning, and extreme care in the handling of the substance is essential.

Precautions for handling mercury

Smoking, eating and drinking are especially hazardous in laboratories where mercury is handled or
used. Ideally, clothing and shoes used in such laboratories should not be worn outside the laboratory,
since this could spread contamination, particularly into the home. Skin contact should be avoided
wherever possible.
Consideration should be given to the more frequent use of fume cupboards, glove boxes, or special
enclosures, instead of handling mercury in the open laboratory. Where practical, operations should
be carried out over a tray containing water or preferably oil. The oil reduces the release of mercury
vapour and helps to prevent the formation of small droplets of mercury. Where mercury is handled
frequently, evaluation of vapour concentration should be made at regular intervals using a
continuous direct-reading instrument.
The use of exposed mercury should be avoided wherever possible in air-conditioned rooms or areas
that generally rely on air recirculation. In such areas the atmospheric contamination can reach
dangerous levels. Ideally, exhaust air from areas containing exposed mercury should be vented to

Decontamination procedures



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The bulk of spilled mercury can, and should, be recovered by suction, using a glass tube connected
by flexible tubing to a filter flask in turn connected to a source of vacuum. However, this method
will permit the collection only of the larger visible drops, and it will not collect small droplets that
might be sprayed around the area.
For the remainder of a spillage there is no really satisfactory method of preventing volatilisation of
the mercury. Treatment of the area with a lime sulphur slurry will assist as the mercury particles
become coated with the sulphur and evaporation is reduced. However, vibration and rubbing, as
occurs with foot traffic, will break the coating and allow vaporisation to continue.
Another method is to treat the area with zinc dust which, in time, forms an amalgam with the
mercury and reduces the volatility. The zinc amalgam is vacuumed up after treatment.
After decontamination has been performed as carefully as possible, the area should be monitored for
mercury vapour and the concentration measured (contact the Safety Officer). If the atmospheric
contamination cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, floor coverings, etc., may have to be
stripped and replaced. Alternatively, forced-draught ventilation can be used to provide sufficient air
movement to reduce the contamination acceptably. If in any doubt about the correct procedure to use
contact the Safety Officer.

Mercury and its salts must not enter the drainage system. Metallic mercury should be collected and
returned to store for recycling. A "waste mercury" box is available for that purpose.
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Last update: September 19, 2002