I just finished reading a news story that was "BREAKING" - so I thought it was going to be something big. Something important.
It was leading off with the headlines of the city HAZMAT TEAM being called out to the local high school. That does sound pretty big, and I was enjoying my coffee with a little time to spare reading the news so I read the next few lines.
Suddenly it wasn't big news anymore. And then, it just got ridiculous.
The "MERCURY SPILL" at the high school that warranted the city hazmat team out for clean up... was due to a broken thermometer.
A broken thermometer.
"Most oral and rectal thermometers contain about 0.5-0.6 grams of mercury. Mercury is not absorbed through intact skin or from a healthy digestive tract in amounts that would cause toxic effects. Therefore, harmful effects would not be expected from swallowing or touching the small amount of mercury from a broken thermometer." - The National Poison Control Center
Just for kicks I looked up the EPA's thoughts on cleaning up spilled mercury.
WHOA!!! BRACE YOURSELF because this is freaking insane... as in insanely stupid. The government has proven over and over again that NOTHING they do is simple. Taking something simple and making it difficult is what they do best. So here is what you do for a tiny mercury spill.
Items Needed to Clean Up a Small Mercury Spill:
- 4-5 zip locking plastic bags
- trash bags (2 to 6 mils thick)
- rubber, nitrile or latex gloves
- paper towels
- cardboard or squeegee
- duct tape, or shaving cream and small paint brush
- flashlight or small task light
- optional: powdered sulfur
- Do not worry if you don't have this available.
- The sulfur binds to the mercury and makes clean-up easier. It is sometimes found in the gardening departments at hardware stores, near the fertilizer, or with garden pesticides and fungicides. Pharmacists may also have it.
- Put on gloves.
- 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 locking bag. Secure the bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
- Locate visible mercury beads. Use a squeegee or cardboard to gather mercury beads into small mercury balls. 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, including any cracks in the floor, when searching.
- Use the eyedropper to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully squeeze mercury onto a damp paper towel. Alternatively, use two pieces of cardboard paper to roll the mercury beads onto the paper towel or into the bag. Place the paper towel in a zip locking bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
- 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 sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments. (Peel the tape very slowly from the floor to keep the mercury beads stuck to the tape.) Place the paint brush or duct tape in a zip locking bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
- 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:
- it makes the mercury easier to see since there may be a color change from yellow to brown, and
- it binds the mercury so that it can be easily removed and suppresses the vapor of any missing mercury.Where to get powdered sulfur? It is sometimes found in the gardening departments at hardware stores, near the fertilizer, or with garden pesticides and fungicides. Pharmacists may also have it.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.
- Place all materials used with the cleanup, including gloves, in a trash bag. Place all mercury beads and objects into the trash bag. Place the trash bag outside in a secured area and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
- Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority or your local fire department to find out how to conduct proper disposal in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
- After cleanup:
- 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. 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.
- Continue to keep pets and children out of cleanup area.
- If sickness occurs, seek medical attention immediately. View information on health effects related to exposures to vapors from metallic mercury. For additional information on health effects, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) provides a Public Health Statement on Mercury that also presents information on health effects related to exposures to vapors from metallic mercury.
Back to the article in the news I read that brought up this whole post....
So the hazmat team was called.
Students were SENT TO THE HOSPITAL as a precaution.
And all students were checked for signs of illness or harm before being dismissed for the day.
From one little broken thermometer.
I recall a couple broken thermometers from my childhood.
The first, I was only about 6 years old. I tried to shake it down like I saw my parents do but I was too close to the sink and it hit the edge, and broke the end off. I'm not completely sure where the mercury end ended up, I don't remember that part but I do recall being afraid I'd get in trouble for breaking the thermometer so I stuck it in between two clean towels, folded and stored in the linen closet. Pretty sure my Mom probably found it that night, as a busy family of five goes through a lot of bath towels!
The next broken thermometer I recall was a few years later. Different house. Not sure how old I was, but maybe 10 or 11. Whether one of my brothers or I broke it, I'm not sure but it was accident that resulted in us seeing the awesome, cool way the liquid beaded up and rolled. Broke apart, it easily came back together to form a large sphere, and you could blow on it or use your finger to mash it apart into tiny beads again before running them all together with your fingers to form a larger bead again.
We would each take a little bead and put it on the edge of the table and then blow on the beads to have races, to see whose would 'win'.
I recall playing with it for quite a long time. Rolling it in my hands, over the backs, into my palms. Blowing on it to disperse it, and then brushing it together with my fingers to make it whole again. I thought it was so fun I went to get a little plastic baggy to keep it in so I could play with it later. And I did.
In the end the pieces probably fell away or got lost as the amount in my baggy was so small I finally just threw it away I suppose. But for a couple days anyway, it was great fun to play with.
And that... is my memory of broken thermometer and playing with liquid mercury as a child in the 70's and early 80's.