How Dangerous Is a Small Mercury Spill?

Tuesday 12th December 2023

Ellen Warren

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A small mercury spill

CONTENTS

A small mercury spill can be just as worrying as a large spill at a factory because this element can be incredibly lethal, even in small doses, depending on the exposure level you experience. Mercury spills, no matter how small, call for swift action and careful handling.

In the hands of our skilled technicians at ICE Cleaning, these tricky situations become manageable emergencies. With our mercury spill cleaning services, we can be on-site the same day and effectively contain, clean, and decontaminate a mercury spill on your property.

Read on to learn more about its properties despite its toxicity, health risks associated with exposure, and environmental impacts.

Understanding mercury and its properties

Mercury, often known as quicksilver, is a unique element with intriguing properties. Despite its liquid state at room temperature, it is heavy like a solid metal - and also toxic.

The Royal Society of Chemistry states that mercury can form alloys with other metals due to its unusual atomic structure. Until the late 2000s, it was used in thermometers because it expands uniformly with heat, accurately detecting temperatures.

The problem arises when mercury vaporises or spills into the environment - small beads scatter everywhere. Even though they look harmless, these tiny droplets pose significant health risks.

Mercury has been both fascinating and troublesome for scientists across generations. While some marvel at its interesting properties, others caution about its dangers if mishandled.

Health risks associated with mercury exposure

Mercury, even in small amounts, poses a significant health risk. Its vapours are easily absorbed by the lungs and into the bloodstream, leading to neurological damage.

The UK Government has warned that coming into contact with even small amounts of mercury can be hazardous, potentially leading to trembling, lack of sleep, memory issues and shifts in behaviour.

The risks increase for those who come into contact frequently or over an extended period. For example, CDC research shows that prolonged exposure can result in chronic mercury poisoning, which has severe implications for kidney function.

The metal is also known to be absorbed through the skin, leading to dermatitis and other skin disorders.

Environmental impact of mercury spills

Small mercury spills can cause big problems. This heavy metal is a potent neurotoxin that, when spilt, breaks into tiny droplets which can spread and evaporate.

When it enters water bodies, bacteria convert it to methylmercury - an even more toxic form. Fish ingest this toxin, and as we move up the food chain from small fish to large predators, including humans, its concentration multiplies - a process called biomagnification.

This affects aquatic life and land animals that consume contaminated fish, like grizzly bears, jaguars, and wolves. A small spill can set off a chain reaction, leading to the potential death of many innocent animals and humans.

Regulations governing mercury handling and disposal

The rules around dealing with mercury are strict due to its hazardous nature. Simply discarding mercury is not an option, and it could lead to you receiving fines or getting into legal trouble.

UK regulations dictate how mercury should be handled and disposed of safely. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) guidelines set out by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) provide detailed instructions.

We have also created a guide on how homeowners can properly dispose of products that may contain mercury. To keep things safe, any mercury spill requires cleaning with specialist cleaning services like ours at ICE Cleaning. We are trained professionals with the tools and knowledge to deal with any spill.

Best practices for managing small mercury spills

If you have spilt mercury, do not panic but act quickly. It is vital to avoid contact and inhalation of vapours. Here are some steps to help manage a small spill:

  • Isolate the area: Make sure everyone leaves the room, prioritising older people, children, and pets. 
  • Ventilate the space: Open windows or doors leading outside to allow ventilation.
  • Evacuate and call: Do not try to clean the mercury yourself - leave the area immediately and contact a professional cleaning service.

Innovations in mercury-free alternatives

Mercury was used for decades for its unique properties, but we now understand the health and environmental risks it poses. Since its ban in the UK, and most of the world, many alternatives were created to help phase out our reliance on it. Some examples include:

  • LED lighting, unlike fluorescent bulbs, does not use mercury.
  • Digital thermometers provide a safer alternative without sacrificing accuracy.
  • Lithium batteries have replaced mercury ones in many applications because they're lighter, hold more charge and pose fewer environmental hazards.

These innovations reduce our reliance on hazardous substances and bring other benefits, like energy efficiency or better performance. By reducing our use of mercury, we are creating a safer environment for both workers and the general public.

Mercury spill FAQs

How do you deal with a small mercury spill?

If you have a spill kit on-site and are qualified to use it, follow the instructions in the kit. Always wear goggles, a mask, and gloves before cleaning mercury.

How much spilled mercury is toxic?

All forms of mercury are toxic, but risks vary depending on the amount, type, exposure method and duration. Even tiny spills should be treated seriously.

What happens if you spill mercury on yourself?

If you get splashed with liquid mercury remove any contaminated clothing immediately and wash your skin thoroughly with warm, soapy water to prevent absorption through the skin's surface.

Get in touch

At ICE Cleaning, our mercury cleaning services ensure complete decontamination of an area affected by a mercury spill. Whether a spill occurs at home or in the workplace, we can effectively clean and sanitise an area to ensure the air is safe to breathe again.

To get in touch with our friendly team, contact us at 0208 066 0360 or enquiries@icecleaning.co.uk. We offer same-day cleaning services in an emergency, so in the event of an unexpected mercury spill, you can rely on us 24/7, 365 days a year to clean and decontaminate your property.

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