Adventures in toxicology

Last week Jeff discovered a horrifyingly large mercury spill behind a closet wall in our new house (about a pint, the amount in 10,000 mercury thermometers). Apparently it had been part of an early 20th century heating system, had been spilled during renovations in the 1970s, and someone decided to just wall it up instead of cleaning it up properly.

The good news is that none of us seem to have been exposed in any dangerous way, since we weren’t using the room and were evacuated quickly after the mercury was opened up to the air.

Lessons learned:

Don’t use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury! It vaporizes and gets everywhere. Brooms are also not a good idea, as they break it up into little droplets that scatter. Don’t walk around in shoes or socks that might be contaminated. Don’t pour mercury down a drain or wash mercury-contaminated clothes in a washer, as the metal will get contaminated. Further instructions here.

This document was the most helpful thing I found, being candid thoughts on how mercury is spilled and spread in houses and how to clean it up, by an environmental toxicologist. The one thing that seems to have changed since it was written is that there’s now a meter capable of measuring smaller quantities of mercury vapor in air (which is good, because the most conservative air vapor limit is an order of magnitude lower than the commonly-used Jerome meter can even measure).

When you’re being evacuated from your home, assume it will be for at least several days. When the fire department told us to leave, I took the baby, her carrier, my purse, my shoes, my phone, and a few diapers (thinking we would be in the front yard for an hour or two). That was a week ago and we still don’t know when we’ll be back. Luckily we have family nearby we can stay with, and Jeff was able to go back to get some clothes.

Obviously if there’s immediate danger you should get out as quickly as possible. But if it’s the kind of situation where you can take 10 minutes to pack medications, a phone charger, some changes of clothes, etc. — take a few minutes to pack a bag! With the caveat that if there’s something dangerous spilled in the house, you really don’t want to track it. Better and cheaper to buy more of whatever you need from the back room than spread the spill.

Previous adventures and lessons learned in lead paint.


3 thoughts on “Adventures in toxicology

  1. gwern

    > This document was the most helpful thing I found, being candid thoughts on how mercury is spilled and spread in houses and how to clean it up, by an environmental toxicologist.

    That is a terrifying and sad read in some respects, especially the parts about the people who think big jars of mercury are valuable assets rather than dangerous liabilities and the Hispanics who like to sprinkle it around their childrens’ rooms.

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