Mercury Spills & How To Safely Handle Mercury Waste

Published July 2013 by Darcie DeFoe

In a previous blog article about mercury we explained the different types of mercury waste, as well as the sources, dangers and recycling processes for it. Today, we will discuss proper handling of packaged mercury wastes for transportation to recycling facilities, and most importantly we have included some resources and references for you to consult if a mercury spill clean up is ever required at your facility. As always, please consult a trained hazardous waste professional in the event of contamination.

PROPER HANDLING & TRANSPORTATION OF MERCURY WASTES

Because of the dangers mercury waste poses to the environment and the health of others, the Department of Transportation has regulated how it must be transported. The main focus when transporting mercury is containment. There are some packaging and handling guidelines in effect to help prevent spills. Any mercury waste, whether it is debris or devices, must be packaged in UN/DOT approved container in order to transport. UN containers are made to withstand pressure in case of impacts, such as a motor vehicle accident. They also have secure lids which further prevents the possibility of a spill. When purchasing containers for Universal and Hazardous Wastes, be sure to ask your vendor if the containers are UN/DOT approved, and look for the UN symbol. TRC and other recyclers often have the appropriate packaging for sale, or they can tell you which vendors would have the type of packaging you require.

UN DOT APPROVED PACKAGING

The DOT also requires that any mercury debris must have a hazardous waste manifest in order to track and account of in case of a spill. This paperwork is used in tracking mercury waste from ‘cradle to grave,’ meaning that the amount of material sent from the generator can be tracked through any of the transporters and onto the end facility where it is processed and recycled. This ensures that waste is not lost, spilled, mistreated or handled irresponsibly, and allows for businesses to accurately report where their wastes are going. Responsible recycling companies will be able to provide this paperwork and help guide you when filling it out prior to your waste being picked up and transported to the processor.

CLEANING UP MERCURY SPILLS: WHAT NEVER TO DO AFTER A MERCURY SPILL 

    • 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.

For this list and comprehensive instructions on handling Mercury Spills, visit the EPA web page at http://www.epa.gov/hg/spills/, and call a professional waste handling company to help guide you, or for clean-up services.

WHAT ABOUT BROKEN FLUORESCENT LAMPS?

Fluorescent and HID (High Intensity Discharge) lamps also contain some amount of mercury and require special care when broken. In CFL lamps, the mercury is found in the tubes, along with the white phosphor powder, which when electrically charged will produce visible light. So, any time the tube is compromised, mercury escaping is a possibility. A compact fluorescent lamp contains about 1/500 of the mercury found in a mercury thermometer,  and since we know any amount of mercury can be a potential hazard, prompt and fastidious clean-up is necessary. Followed of course, by appropriate disposal and recycling.

HID lamps, which are often found in areas with difficult maintenance access, like building exteriors, parking lots, and warehouses with high ceilings, can contain 20-100 milligrams of mercury. (For reference, a thermometer contains about 500 milligrams of mercury.) The mercury in HID lamps is contained in a small capsule inside the larger lamp globe. If the outer globe is broken, store the entire lamp in double plastic, inside a rigid container to prevent further breakage. If the capsule is broken and mercury has escaped, follow appropriate cleanup and containment response for mercury spills.

This HID lamp chart from US Department of Energy shows the location of the capsule containing mercury  inside of the main lamp globe:

HID LAMP DIAGRAM

MORE MERCURY INFO

For additional information on recycling mercury devices and debris, including mercury-containing lamps, you are welcome to contact our recycling representatives any time. Also, check out our previous article Understanding Mercury Waste & Mercury Recycling Process

 

READ ALSO // Fluorescent Lamp Recycling: Small amounts of mercury, big hazard.