Executive Council

Authorizes Release:

Vice President for Administration and Finance

Responsible Area:

Facilities Services

Review Cycle:

Annually or as required

Last Review:

March 2021

Related Policies and Additional References:



The purpose of this document is to describe the cleanup, handling, and disposal procedures for mercury or mercury filled instruments.

Background / Scope

This document applies to all academic and non-academic departments of St. Mary’s University that purchase, use, or dispose of mercury. Mercury containing equipment includes items such as mercury thermometers, mercury switches, and thermostats. Thermometers and other mercury containing equipment (mercury thermostats and switches) must be disposed as universal waste. Mercury containing materials should be phased out over time by replacing the equipment with alternatives. Call Facilities for disposal.


Cleaning Up Spills – What Never To Do After a Mercury Spill

Refer to EPA Guidelines for more specific instructions about vacuuming broken CFLs and other fluorescent light bulbs.

  • Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
  • Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
  • Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
  • Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded. By “direct contact,” we mean that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing, for example, if you break a mercury thermometer and some of elemental mercury beads came in contact with your clothing.
  • Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.

What To Do If a Mercury Thermometer Breaks

NOTE: These instructions also apply to spills from other sources, if the amount spilled is less than or similar to the amount in a thermometer:

  • Contact the lab or area supervisor immediately.
  • Have everyone else leave the area; don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out. Make sure all pets are removed from the area. Open all windows and doors to the outside; shut all doors to other parts of the building/house.
  • Mercury can be cleaned up easily from the following surfaces: wood, linoleum, tile and any similarly smooth surfaces.
  • If a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery, or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away in accordance with the disposal means outlined below. Only cut and remove the affected portion of the contaminated carpet for disposal.

Items Needed to Clean up Mercury Spills

  • 4-5 zip lock-type bags
  • trash bags (2 to 6 mils thick)
  • rubber, nitrile, or latex gloves
  • paper towels
  • cardboard or squeegee
  • eyedropper
  • duct tape or shaving cream, and small paint brush
  • flashlight
  • powdered sulfur (optional)

Cleanup Instructions

  • Put on rubber, nitrile, or latex gloves.
  • If there are any broken pieces of glass or sharp objects, pick them up with care. Place all broken objects on a paper towel. Fold the paper towel and place in a zip lock bag. Secure the bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
  • Locate visible mercury beads. Use a squeegee or cardboard to gather mercury beads. Use slow sweeping motions to keep mercury from becoming uncontrollable. Take a flashlight, hold it at a low angle close to the floor in a darkened room and look for additional glistening beads of mercury that may be sticking to the surface or in small cracked areas of the surface. Note: Mercury can move surprising distances on hard-flat surfaces, so be sure to inspect the entire room when “searching”.
  • Use the eyedropper to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully squeeze mercury onto a damp paper towel. Place the paper towel in a zip lock bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
  • After you remove larger beads, put shaving cream on top of small paint brush and gently “dot” the affected area to pick up smaller hard-to-see beads. Alternatively, use duct tape to collect smaller hard-to-see beads. Place the paint brush or duct tape in a zip lock bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
  • OPTIONAL STEP: It is optional to use commercially available powdered sulfur to absorb the beads that are too small to see. The sulfur does two things: (1) it makes the mercury easier to see since there may be a color change from yellow to brown and (2) it binds the mercury so that it can be easily removed and suppresses the vapor of any missing mercury. Where to get commercialized sulfur? It may be supplied as mercury vapor absorbent in mercury spill kits, which can be purchased from laboratory, chemical supply and hazardous materials response supply manufacturers.
    Note: Powdered sulfur may stain fabrics a dark color. When using powdered sulfur, do not breathe in the powder as it can be moderately toxic. Additionally, users should read and understand product information before use.
  • If you choose not to use this option, you may want to request the services of a contractor who has monitoring equipment to screen for mercury vapors. Consult your local environmental or health agency to inquire about contractors in your area. Place all materials used with the cleanup, including gloves, in a trash bag. Place all mercury beads and objects into the trash bag. Secure trash bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
  • Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority, or your local fire department for proper disposal in accordance with local, state, and federal laws.
  • Remember to keep the area well ventilated to the outside (i.e., windows open and fans in exterior windows running) for at least 24 hours after your successful cleanup. Continue to keep pets and children out of cleanup area. If sickness occurs, seek medical attention immediately.
  • For additional information on health effects, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) provides a Mercury Fact Sheet that also presents information on health effects related to exposures to vapors from metallic mercury.

Spills of More than the Amount in a Thermometer, but Less Than or Similar to Two Tablespoons (1 lb.)

  • Have everyone else leave the area; don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out.
  • Open all windows and doors to the outside.
  • Turn down the temperature.
  • Shut all doors to other parts of the house, and leave the area. Don’t vacuum.
  • Call your local or state health or environmental agency.

Spills of More than Two Tablespoons (1 lb.)

Contact the St. Mary’s University Police Department (x1911) and the Facilities Services Office. Note that because mercury is heavy, only two tablespoons of mercury weigh about one pound. Any time one pound or more of mercury is released to the environment, it is mandatory to call the National Response Center (NRC). The NRC hotline operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Packaging Mercury for Storage and Transportation

  • All mercury-containing products or containers of mercury should be placed inside a larger container with a tight fitting lid.
  • Kitty litter or oil-absorbent matter should be placed around the product to protect it from sudden shocks or breaking.
  • Clearly label storage container as “Mercury – DO NOT OPEN.”
  • If you must wait for a hazardous waste collection day, store products safely in their original containers with the labels intact, and keep them out of reach of children and pets.
  • Transport container to a household hazardous collection center in a cardboard box. Secure them so that they do not tip over. This will minimize shifting or sliding during sudden stops or turns.
  • Transport containers in the back of a pick-up truck or in a car trunk. If you must transport in the passenger compartment, make sure there is adequate ventilation.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Recycling and Disposal Requirements that Apply to Business And Industry

Under RCRA, some widely generated hazardous wastes, including mercury-containing wastes like certain spent batteries, thermostats, barometers, manometers, temperature and pressure gauges, certain switches and light bulbs, are designated as “universal wastes”.  Businesses and industries that qualify as universal waste handlers must follow specific requirements for storing, transporting and disposing of these wastes.

Mercury Response Guidebook (for Emergency Responders)

The Mercury Response Guidebook, by EPA’s Emergency Response Team and EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, is designed to assist emergency and remedial professionals coordinate and clean up indoor mercury spills. The principles in this guidebook can also be used at other mercury-contaminated sites.


All personnel working with mercury or mercury containing equipment must be trained on this procedure.

Record Keeping

Training records will be maintained by each department per St. Mary’s Record Retention Policy.

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