Cleaning & maintenance management

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Mercury is a known neurotoxin that is extremely toxic even in small amounts.

It directly affects the central nervous and renal systems, causing developmental delays, motor and brain problems like those associated with autism.

Mercury’s hidden danger also lies in when at room temperature and exposed, it vaporizes readily. Once it has become an aerosol, it is absorbed into the lungs and spreads throughout the body.

Chronic mercury poisoning is more common due to long-term exposure by inhalation of dust or vapors, and knowledge to prevent such incidents is vital in mercury collection and cleanup.

Common threat

Mercury is used in over 3,000 industrial applications, including:

  • High-pressure sodium lamps
  • Fluorescent bulbs
  • Mercury-containing thermostats
  • Spent batteries
  • Medical equipment such as sphygmomanometers, fever thermometers and dental amalgams.

It also is found in chemicals and staining solutions, such as mercury chloride.

Since the early 1990s, environmental regulations have eliminated mercury as a manufactured product and today’s sources are a direct result of reclamation and recycling.

Despite the changes in federal regulations to reduce the amount of mercury going into landfills and use in consumer products, mercury free alternative products have been slow to replace existing items. In some cases, there are no alternatives.


When liquefied, the small beads that mercury form are difficult to pick up and contain, and measures should be taken accordingly to ensure workers are protected and do not come in contact with the contaminated area without proper protection.

A broken light fixture, while not spread out, is just as much of risk to the employees as the dust very readily spreads and can be inhaled.

Cleaning up this spill can be done one of two ways — both of which turn mercury into a non-vaporizing form:

  • Amalgamation: Mixes the mercury with one or more metals into a solid
  • Insolubilization: Requires the mercury to be mixed into a sulfide.

Before a spill takes place, the proper materials need to be in order for preventive maintenance.

A spill kit should be on hand at any workstation where the risk of mercury spillage and exposure exists at all times (see side bar).

Developing a plan

When a spill occurs, a set procedure should be followed to reduce the risk of exposure to the individuals, and spreading of the mercury from the spillage area.

  1. The first step when a spill occurs would be to isolate the contaminated area, evacuating all personnel until the spill can be contained and corrected.
  2. Immediately after that, interview and fill out a spill inquiry report with the worker’s assistance. This will determine whether the spill is a simple or complex spill. Generally, amounts under one pound of mercury are considered simple, with additional considerations taken to surface areas and spreading of the mercury.
  3. Ventilation is another primary concern of the contaminated area, as the free mercury will readily vaporize and continue to do so until collected. It is recommended to shut down the air conditioning or heating, if applicable, and open the windows to get the maximum amount of air in the room and allow the vapors to flow outside.

The cleanup process

After the process of applying personal protective equipment on and the removal of all metallic objects from the worker, use mercury sensing gauges or a gas vapor analyzer to determine the areas of contamination and residue.

An alternative method is to use a high-intensity halogen light to detect the presence of mercury droplets or powder. Another method would be the application of a sodium sulfide solution to the contaminated area. Discoloration in the form of dark reddish brown stains will indicate the presence of mercury.

Once the mercury has been located:

  1. Apply the magnetic amalgamation powder directly to the contaminated area.
  2. Using the spray bottle, apply a slight mist to the powder, to allow the dry acid reagent to react with the metals and start to form the solid bond.
  3. Mix the powder and mercury together, using the scratch pads until the metals have the appearance of a paste-like substance.
  4. In the same method as before, form a paste and apply to the area contaminated.
  5. With normal setting times approximately an hour’s time, survey the entire area for additional contamination spots, making notice of cracks, crevices and any orifices the mercury could have fallen into. If detection has discovered mercury in such conditions, the advantages of the magnetic amalgamation powder are evident.
  6. In the same method as before, form a paste and apply to the area contaminated.
  7. Once hardened, use the magnetic pick-up tool to collect the mercury bearing waste and place it into a storage container.

This application is also advisable to use in situations where mercury has accidentally been poured down a drain and unable to collect:

  1. Forming the powder and using the magnetic tool like a drain snake, collect the mercury, and remove the piping for disposal, along with the waste amalgam, at an approved mercury recycling and collection facility.
  2. Upon completion of the spill area, collect all contaminated materials that have been amalgamated into a bucket with sealed lid. This container will be the primary device to return the objects to the mercury recycler.
  3. Inspect the area, and atmosphere for any residual indication of mercury vapors.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards limit the exposure risks to vapor to be no more than 0.2 mg/L. Great care must be taken to inspect all the areas before declaring the site now safe for return. Collection of the tools, gloves, boots, etc., can now be done and put into separate containers for disposal.

A final protective application from any residual mercury would be to put down a wax like sealant over the surface area, if applicable.

Disposal procedures

In dealing with any mercury spillage, a growing concern in recent years has been the proper disposal procedures concerning mercury-bearing wastes.

Legal authorities have voiced concerns of mercury returning into the ecosystem by improper disposal methods, such as landfill burial or illegal dumping.

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenlights program has set standards to have specified regulations for fluorescent bulb disposal and to reclaim the mercury.

Other recycling policies concerning mercury-containing devices, such as thermostats, have enacted collection services for mercury devices for recycling. The standards and locations of such facilities, or information to set up a collection program, can be found at the Mercury Awareness Program web site or by contacting the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers at

Mark Ceasar is an executive with OMNI, a division of AJAX Floor. OMNI manufactures spill control products for the hazardous and biohazardous waste clean-up markets. For more, check out

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