Safety and first aid

Clean-up guide for small mercury spills in the home

What is mercury?

Mercury (also known by the chemical symbol ‘Hg’) is an odourless, silver, naturally occurring liquid metal.

Read more about mercury and the effects of mercury exposure.

Sources of mercury in the home

Home owners should only attempt to clean small amounts of elemental mercury (less than 200 g) that may typically be found in a home environment, such as from:

  • a hand-held thermometer containing 2 – 3 g of mercury
  • an ambient outside temperature thermometer containing 13 – 15 g of mercury
  • a compact fluorescent lamp (also known as an energy-saving light globe) containing less than 5 mg of mercury
  • a desk mounted sphygmomanometer (used to monitor blood pressure) containing about 85 g of mercury
  • a barometer that may contain up to 160 g of mercury.

Health risks associated with mercury

The accidental breakage of a thermometer, barometer or blood pressure monitor is not an emergency situation. However, a reasonable level of caution is recommended as elemental mercury emits fumes and may be absorbed through the skin, by breathing vapours, or if swallowed. It is important to ensure children do not come into contact with the beads of mercury.

Recommended clean-up procedures

Although a spill of a small amount of mercury is highly unlikely to cause any health problems, it is best to be prepared when handling mercury and to avoid direct contact with the skin, eyes or mouth.

  1. Isolate the area – get children and pets out of the room where the breakage occurred so that the beads of mercury are not accidentally eaten or tracked throughout the home. Open windows in the room and allow fresh air to flow.
  2. Gather the clean-up kit:
    • a pair of disposable latex or plastic gloves
    • zip lock bags and a large sealable container
    • hard card, rigid paper or cardboard to scrape surfaces
    • paper towel to pick-up and handle pieces of glass
    • sticky tape or masking tape to clean carpets or rugs and to seal the waste in the disposal bag
    • a larger sealable bag or rigid container for all wastes
    • a torch or small light source is useful as beads of mercury will reflect light, making them easier to see.
  3. Ventilation period – by the time the first 2 steps are completed, enough time will have passed to allow for any vapours from the small amount of mercury that is present to have dispersed.
  4. Put on the gloves and collect visible balls or droplets of mercury using the card or tape and put these into the disposal bag. Carefully collect pieces of glass or other broken materials – take care not to cut yourself or puncture the gloves.
  5. Dispose of the used gloves and all the clean-up materials in the disposal bag, seal it, label clearly, and store it away from children or pets until it can be taken to a household hazardous waste disposal facility.

Household hazardous waste disposal facilities

These facilities are located throughout WA. Many local governments host temporary collection days. Check the schedule for opening hours for your local area.

Find your nearest household hazardous waste disposal facility (external site).

Intact (not broken) household equipment containing mercury can also be taken to the local household hazardous waste facility. Ensure it is protected from breakages and is clearly labelled.

When cleaning up mercury spills

  • Do not use the vacuum cleaner or a broom to sweep up the mercury. Both of these can break the mercury into smaller beads and may spread the spill even further. The heat from the vacuum motor may also cause the mercury to volatise (evaporate into fumes), which will further spread traces of mercury around your home.
  • Do not machine wash clothing that may have absorbed mercury with the normal laundry. Throw away contaminated clothing if possible, or wash clothing separately in a bucket.
  • Do not pour mercury directly down the sink.
  • Do not put elemental mercury into the household recycling bins.

Replacement equipment

WA Health recommends using digital oral thermometers or digital infrared ear thermometers, both reliable alternatives to thermometers containing mercury.

More information

Contact your local government authority (external site) for information on household hazardous waste collection.

For information on health issues relating to environmental exposures to hazardous wastes email the Environmental Health Directorate or phone 9388 4999.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222

Remember

  • A small mercury spill is highly unlikely to cause health problems, but it is best to be prepared when handling mercury and avoid direct contact with the skin, eyes or mouth. 

Acknowledgements

Public Health


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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