Mercury in the Home

Most people will immediately think of a thermometer when they think of mercury, but historically, it was used to purify gold, make paint, and treat felt. The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came about because hat makers used to show signs of dementia from exposure to poisonous mercury vapors.

Nowadays people are more aware that mercury is toxic, and governments have helped limit the use of it.  In the U.S., it is still used in some thermostats, thermometers, laptop screen shutoff switches, tilt switches, pressure switches, old doorbells, and fluorescent lightbulbs. The amount of mercury in these items is small, but it is important to know how to properly dispose of them and cleanup spills if they should occur.  

When it comes time to dispose of mercury-containing items, Marion County residents can take them to the Household Hazardous Waste Drop-off Site. Fluorescent light tubes can be recycled at the Salem-Keizer Transfer Station, Home Depot or Lowe’s.

If you accidentally break something that contains less than 3 tablespoons of mercury, follow the DEQ’s guidelines for cleanup. If you spill more than that, do not try to clean it up by yourself. Call the Oregon Response System at 1-800-452-0311 or 503-378-6377.

bioaccumulation cropped.jpgIf mercury-containing items are not properly disposed of, the mercury can find its way into our waterways. When mercury gets into water, naturally-occurring bacteria turn it into a toxin called methylmercury. This toxin is especially hazardous because when an animal ingests it, the mercury is absorbed into the body tissue. If that animal gets eaten, the predator will then absorb that same mercury into its tissues. In this way, mercury will accumulate up the food chain so that large, predatory fish contain much more mercury than their smaller prey.

When people eat too much fish with high levels of mercury, it can damage our brains, hearts, and kidneys. This is especially true for children whose bodies are still growing. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include lack of coordination, vision changes and difficulty speaking.

Make sure you don’t put people’s health at risk. Identify items in your home that contain mercury and know how to dispose of them properly.