Step-by-step guide to cleaning up mercury spills from thermometers
This factsheet is intended to be used as a guide by members of the public who may need to clean up mercury spills resulting from the breakage of a thermometer.
If a mercury spill is efficiently cleaned up and disposed of correctly the mercury is unlikely to pose a risk to health.
If you, or anyone who may have been exposed to the mercury, become ill, seek immediate medical advice by calling NHS direct on 0845 4647, or by contacting your GP.
Members of the public can easily clean up small mercury spills from a broken thermometer on flat and non-porous surfaces. If you estimate that the amount of mercury spilt is greater than the amount in a single thermometer, or if it is difficult to recover all of the spilled mercury (e.g. if it has penetrated into a carpet), then the contaminated area should be isolated and the environmental health department of your local authority should be contacted.
- Keep children and pets out of the contaminated area.
- Prior to cleaning up the spill, put on an old set of clothes and shoes, and rubber gloves.
- Never vacuum the affected area as this will contaminate the machine and result in the airborne release of vaporised mercury. A vacuum cleaner contaminated with mercury will have to be disposed of. Consult your local authority for information on where you can safely dispose of such equipment, or if you have any queries. A mop or broom should not be used as these will become contaminated and spread the spill.
- Elemental mercury that has been spilt on a hard surface should be picked up using masking tape, or swept into a glass container with a sealable lid using stiff cardboard to push the beads together. Check a wide area beyond the spill, using a torch to identify as much of the mercury as possible.
- The container, the cardboard and broken glass should be double-bagged for disposal. Then consult your local authority for information regarding disposal facilities, or if you have any queries. The room in which the spill occurred should be ventilated and the spill area should not be vacuumed for two weeks.
- If the spill is on upholstery or carpet, the mercury should be collected in a sealable container (see step 4). Remember, never vacuum the affected area as this will contaminate the machine and result in the airborne release of vaporised mercury which can harm health. If the mercury cannot be retrieved, the area of contaminated upholstery or carpet may need to be removed and disposed of as hazardous waste. If this is the case, the contaminated material should be double-bagged. Consult your local authority for information on where you can safely dispose of the waste.
- Do not use household cleaning products to clean the spill, particularly products that contain ammonia or chlorine such as bleach. These chemicals will react violently with mercury, releasing a toxic gas.
- Elemental mercury that has been spilt down a sink should be removed by dismantling the U-bend (water trap) and collected in a sealable container and disposed as hazardous waste. Mercury left in the sink U-bend will vaporise on contact with warm water and should therefore be removed to avoid prolonged exposure.
- Clothing that has come into contact with the mercury must not be dry-cleaned or washed in a washing machine and must be discarded, double-bagged, in the normal household refuse.
- Carefully remove rubber gloves by grabbing them at the wrist and pulling them inside out as they come off. Place the gloves and any contaminated clothing, double-bagged, in the rubbish bin for disposal.
Remember to keep the area well-ventilated to the outside (open windows and run any available fans) for at least twenty-four hours after your successful clean-up. Continue to keep pets and children out of the clean-up area.
First issued August 2007
Mercury spills - cleanup (PDF, 28 KB)
Mercury in residential settings:
step-by-step guide to cleaning up spills.
Background information on mercury spills in residential settings is also available.
Last reviewed: 15 June 2010