What do you do with 3lbs. of mercury?
December 11, 2008 6:33 PM   Subscribe

What do you do with 3lbs. of mercury?

I have a friend who is an active scrapper. She is constantly collecting metals of all sorts, and periodically taking it all to the scrap yard, where she gets money for selling scrap metal. She is more than willing to dumpster dive to get a piece of copper or a few aluminum cans.

She works as a commercial cleaning woman, sometimes cleaning out buildings before and after construction.

She was recently cleaning out an old (semi-abandoned) 6 story building in Central Florida. One of the offices was once, a long time ago, a dentist's office. There, she found the mercury - 3lbs 2oz of the silvery liquid stuff. (Apparently, mercury was once used in dental fillings.)

She did not steal this mercury. She was given permission to take and scrap a lot of different metal from the building, while cleaning it out, getting the building ready to sell.

She initial thought the mercury would be valuable. She was very excited about her find. But, when she got to the scrap yard, they kind of freaked out. They told her it was a hazardous material, that she was crazy to carrying it around in a plastic bucket, and to take a hike.

OK, maybe she is not the brightest woman for taking this mercury, but now what does she do? The owner of the building refuses to take it back. The scrap yard seemed to indicate that she might have to pay money to dispose of it properly. Now, she is scared of it.

Her husband wants her to take it and just dump it in the woods - which seems to me to be a really dumb, and dangeruos idea. But, she is not going to pay money to dispose of it - she does not have much money to begin with.

It most have some value, right? What can she do with it? This is in Central Florida, along the I-4 corridor.

Any help would be appreciated.
posted by Flood to Grab Bag (66 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They'll help you dispose of it. Don't dump it, don't handle it, and do keep it outside in a well-ventilated area; it releases mercury vapor at room temperature (it evaporates, like any liquid), and this vapor is toxic.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:38 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure but your friend should read this and call someone equipped to handle the stuff.
posted by jtoth at 6:38 PM on December 11, 2008


I'd be looking at making some sort of artsy mercury barometer and then sell it on eBay. There's a real market there for interesting and eccentric scientific instruments. The only real issue here is the carcinogenic vapors, since if you seal the vapors then it's no longer a functioning barometer.
posted by crapmatic at 6:38 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Jesus christ, DO NOT DUMP IT IN THE WOODS. I have no better answer at this second about what TO do with it, but I know not to do that.
posted by tristeza at 6:39 PM on December 11, 2008 [11 favorites]


I'd be looking at making some sort of artsy mercury barometer and then sell it on eBay.

Please, please do not follow this advice. You do not want to be messing around with this stuff.
posted by peacheater at 6:45 PM on December 11, 2008


I completely agree that she should not dump the mercury. I am posting this question to find her a viable alternative route.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, that ikkyu2 posted, says she needs to go to a "permitted mercury reclamation facilities" - that is going to cost money. I am telling you, she will not, can not, pay to dispose of the stuff.
posted by Flood at 6:47 PM on December 11, 2008


Maybe your friend should try contacting the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection directly, and speaking to someone about it. They might be able to help her because they sure as heck don't want that stuff dumped in the woods.

You could just leave it right in front of one of those mercury reclamation facilities--what are they going to do, leave it at the front door? Probably not a great idea, but definitely better than the woods.
posted by DMan at 6:52 PM on December 11, 2008


there has to be a market for this. It is used in lots of industry/manufacturing

do not dump it!
posted by patnok at 6:52 PM on December 11, 2008


How about "put it back where she found it, and tell the FDEP that it's there"?
posted by dmd at 6:53 PM on December 11, 2008


Do not pass go. Do not dump ANYWHERE. Contact the authorities, now.

Seriously. The EPA will come down on you like a hammer for improper disposal of this stuff, and she'll be lucky if they don't condemn her house just for having it inside. If she spilled any, anywhere, she should report it.

As mentioned above, the liquid isn't the problem. The problem is that it aerosolizes and the vapor is badwrong. Bad, badwrong.
posted by griffey at 6:55 PM on December 11, 2008


She can not put it back, she no longer has access to the building where she found it. In fact, I think the building may already have a new owner. She was cleaning out the building just before a closing on its sale.

She is afraid to call the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection, fearing they might make her pay to dump it - or something. But, sadly, I think that might be her only reasonable option.
posted by Flood at 6:56 PM on December 11, 2008


From Wikihow.com:

"How to Dispose of Mercury

Mercury is one of the most toxic and environmentally damaging elements we encounter in day to day use. The question of disposal of this liquid metal involves Federal, State, and Local laws, as well as a very real potential for serious environmental damage, so it is important to give it due consideration. This being said, we do encounter mercury in many common household uses, such as older type thermometers, air conditioning thermostats, electric heaters, fluorescent tube lights, and other electronic appliances.

1. Contain the mercury as well as possible, preferably in a heavy glass jar with a lid which seals.
2. Keep the container in a safe location where children and pets cannot disturb it.
3. Your local government should have a hazardous waste disposal facility, the first option would be to find them in the phone book and call for a schedule of drop off times and further instructions.
4. There is a website devoted to all environmental waste and hazardous materials that can direct you and provide information on disposal, the address is http://www.earth911.org/master.asp and when you visit it, you can enter your zip code and it will give you specific information on local hazardous waste services.

* Be aware that many products used in the household contain hazardous materials that can be released into the environment and cause serious consequences. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause serious effects in tiny concentrations.
* Because of the serious nature of this situation, it is best if you are able to access the government link at the bottom of this page to go to it and get detailed, specific instructions on the procedure for gathering the spilled material!

* Do not allow contact with skin! Mercury can be absorbed through the skin, and if you have any doubt that you may have had contact with it (and reside within the United States), contact the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. Dial the appropriate emergency number for your country if unsure.
* Mercury can give off vapors that can accumulate to dangerous levels in unventilated rooms."

Good luck -- stay safe!
posted by lungtaworld at 6:58 PM on December 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


She is right to be afraid of it. Please make sure that she's storing it somewhere that no children can gain access to it.

In Maine, dumping mercury in the woods would be felony. Laws are different in FL, but there is a strong chance that by dumping it she would be committing a serious crime. (Be sure to tell the husband that.)

Thirding contacting the DEP. They want this stuff gone, gone, gone, so they'll probably be willing to help her out in some way. In any case, she'll never know until she calls.
posted by anastasiav at 6:59 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


The DEP is not going to to make her pay to dispose of a potentially lethal/harmful substance, for god's sake. The DEP is not going to say "Oh, really? you have a bucket of mercury and you can't pay to dispose of it properly? Oh well. Just keep it, maybe toss it in the sewer or leave it in your garage, no worries." They will figure out how to deal with it CALL THEM.
posted by tristeza at 7:05 PM on December 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Dumping this stuff is likely to kill someone. If she does dump it, you have a moral duty to report her.
posted by Electrius at 7:05 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's a link find the nearest household hazardous waste facility in Florida. I suspect they will take it even though it's sort of an oddly large amount for a household.

BTW I checked commodity prices and it's not worth more than a few bucks.
posted by exogenous at 7:09 PM on December 11, 2008


She should pay to dispose this stuff because it was a mistake to take it without calling the EPA or whoever in the first place and making the building owner dispose of it. She should pay to dispose of it because it is a serious health hazard and the health effects from keeping it around will be far more expensive in monetary and non-monetary consequences. Period.
posted by cellphone at 7:10 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I imagine the previous owners of the building had left it there because they had no idea how to dispose of it either. Either too hard or too expensive, so they just put it in the corner hoping that someone else would just take it off their hands.
posted by robotot at 7:16 PM on December 11, 2008


Mercury itself isn't so bad. What makes it bad is when it combines with other things in the environment. And/or when it aerosolizes and people breathe it.

I'm a lunatic, but I'd get a nice glass or crystal container, pour it in, seal it up and have a conversation piece. But I had a science teacher who passed mercury and uranium around the classroom, so maybe my brain is fried?
posted by gjc at 7:17 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another idea might be to get the phone book for the nearest city and just start calling the chemical manufacturing companies and see if they want it for free. They may say no, but the idea is some of them might give you some leads/advice or let you know of a corporate client who might be antsy to have some. Then call some of the chemical manufacturers associations and talk to people there. After making these calls you'll be enlightened, and might avoid paying recycling/reclamation fees.
posted by crapmatic at 7:19 PM on December 11, 2008


no money? hazardous waste disposal facility doesn't want to take it for free? easy. stop by the nearest fire station and ask them to dispose of it. say you found this and think it's mercury and wanted to do the right thing. be clear that it's not yours and that it's either them taking it or the dumpster. they will take it, albeit grudgingly.
posted by krautland at 7:22 PM on December 11, 2008 [11 favorites]


Call the chemistry department of your local universities. They might know how to dispose of it, or maybe they could use it in their lab.
posted by clearlydemon at 7:28 PM on December 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Here's a list I googled up of businesses that sell mercury. Perhaps she could call a few of them up and see if they'll sell hers.

In the meantime, keeping it in a sealed glass container in a well-ventilated but secure outbuilding would be a good idea.

If she's currently got it in a plastic bucket, she will need to treat that as contaminated waste.

Tell her not to get any on her.
posted by flabdablet at 7:29 PM on December 11, 2008


I'm with gjc ... liquid mercury is certainly not to be dumped, but if it's in a glass jar it is fairly safe. I used to play around with mercury a lot --barometers, general fun with a cool liquid-- and lived long and prospered (well, sort of.)

In fact I'd love to take the mercury and make some more cool barometers myself - email me and I'll find out about shipping.
posted by anadem at 7:32 PM on December 11, 2008


I'm a lunatic, but I'd get a nice glass or crystal container, pour it in, seal it up and have a conversation piece.

I'm not a lunatic and I'd do the same thing. Mercury is cool. I bet you make something really attractive and artsy. Do you know any local artists who could make something with (sealed) glass and mercury?

Hell, if you were closer to me I'd come and take it off your hands myself. It's not going to sneak out of its container and night and go on a killing spree or something.
posted by Justinian at 7:41 PM on December 11, 2008


The EPA has this page on how to contain and dispose of large amounts of mercury in the home. Excerpt:

What to Do if You Have Mercury in Your Home

Many people have containers of elemental mercury in their homes left over from science projects or other sources. If you have elemental mercury in your home, you need to exercise extreme caution with it and package it to prevent any leaks or spills. See the next two sections of this page to find how to package, transport and dispose of mercury.

...

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 breaking or sudden shocks.

* 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.

posted by zippy at 7:46 PM on December 11, 2008


I'd put it in a tightly sealed glass jar and put it on a bookshelf. It's neat stuff. Poisonous as all hell, but neat.
posted by electroboy at 7:48 PM on December 11, 2008


I think lame_username meant to link here, but that's the UK, and only peripherally useful at the moment.

Sadly, Florida doesn't have an official mercury recycling program. I think the best bet is to pack it up safely and see if a household hazardous waste collection center will take it. (like zippy says.)
posted by zamboni at 7:48 PM on December 11, 2008


She could call anonymously from a payphone if she's worried about personal liability, but I have to say...

She initial thought the mercury would be valuable. She was very excited about her find.
...
I am telling you, she will not, can not, pay to dispose of the stuff.


This is the sort of thing that makes me hate people. She picked up a toxic substance because she thought she could make money, but is now unwilling to take responsiblity for it when it turns out she can't just make a quick buck. Mercury in the environment causes birth defects and developmental disorders. Even if she keeps this securely sealed for a year until she has the money, she assumed legal, financial and moral responsibility for that container when she picked it up. Every chance to make profit comes with risk, and this time it didn't work out in her favour. She has no right to ask the environment and fellow citizens bear the cost of her profit-motivated risk-taking.
posted by Dasein at 8:08 PM on December 11, 2008 [33 favorites]


I would call a lab/science dept - these people have services that pick up chem. waste for them (I know that we have dealt with mercury contamination before) and could maybe point her in the right direction. I doubt if she calls the government and says she is poor that anything will happen - I am going to go ahead and say that there is no way she would get in trouble.

Holy heck, that is a lot of mercury.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 8:13 PM on December 11, 2008


It would be a horrible, terrible thing to dump this stuff. Awful for the environment, awful for people. Sure, in its pure metallic form it's not nearly as bad as in its methylated forms, but it's not great either, and once it's out there, that's not the end of it. Please, for the love of god, tell her not to dump it. She doesn't want that on her hands.

I agree with Tristeza et al.: the DEP will be reasonable about the situation. They would much rather deal with the mercury's disposal than deal with the cost, effort, and hazard of cleaning it up once it's dumped. Or, yes, she could try the fire department or academia; an academic in chemistry or environmental toxicology might be sympathetic and helpful. If she's really worried, have her find a pay phone or something, call up anonymously, and describe the situation.

You people talking about putting it in art or storing it on your mantelpiece are crazy. Someone knocks that shit over and breaks it and you are royally screwed, with 8 bazillion little beads of Hg everywhere, possible exposure to vapors and whatever. If you made and sold some art piece or ornament you might even be liable for problems resulting from someone else breaking it.

Mercury poisoning.
posted by Herkimer at 8:13 PM on December 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Donate it to a college? Environmental or soils testing labs use the stuff, maybe they might want it?
posted by thebrokedown at 8:17 PM on December 11, 2008


For those of us of a certain age, this brings up conflicting thoughts. In science class in elementary and junior high, we were given blobs of mercury to play with! We were told to blow on it with a straw, roll it around on the table, even poke it with out fingers! "Just wash your hands good when you're done!"

Certainly people knew how dangerous mercury was if ingested or improperly handled; it was common to read news stories about mercury poisoning in fish. So, the answers about keeping it in a jar are not flippant. Of course it won't escape, and if kept sealed it won't hurt anyone. Personally, I would dispose of it through an official source. I wouldn't want to risk some stupid accident involving a dropped and broken jar, with mercury splattering all over the place.

You are correct that your friend was not to bright too be sloshing it around in a bucket. But I also disagree that she should be punished for thinking there might be (gasp!!!!!) profit in reclaiming it. The profit motive in salvaging all kinds of materials has existed as long as there has been waste, and thank God for it!

But now, she needs to do the next right thing: call the appropriate authorities and let them guide her. She can explain she has no money, and I'm sure there is something that can be done. All of our fellow citizens help cover the cost of our waste every day. This is no exception.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:26 PM on December 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


do not dump it. 3lbs is a HUGE amount of mercury and one of the main ways it becomes bio-available is getting into wetlands. Dumping it in the woods in Florida is incredibly irresponsible and pretty much evil.

Call the authorities, they will take it. They are not so stupid as to leave
posted by fshgrl at 8:28 PM on December 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Donating it to a college is a good idea. She might even be able to determine the fair market value of the stuff and write off the donation. Win win!
posted by paperzach at 8:29 PM on December 11, 2008


Thank you all for your answers. I will advice her as best I can. She wants to do the right thing - and I think she will.

Dasein: I am sorry for your hatred for my friend. This is a hard working woman, who busts her butt to recycle tons (and I literally mean tons) of scrap metal every year to help support her family. Most people toss mixed steel and aluminum cans away with out thinking about - she dumpster dives to resuce every bit. She pulls more steel out of the trash than anyone I have every seen. Steel is worth less than a dollar a pound, yet she hauls in hundreds of pounds a week out of the trash.

You have no comment for the dentist who left the bucket of mercury in his office. Or the building owner (an educated, wealthy man) who paid her to clean the office, and allowed her to walk away with the mercury - and who now refuses to take it back, and could cause her to lose her job if she pushes to hard against him.

I think it is wrong to direct HATRED towards my friend for being a scrapper. She made a mistake, now she has a problem. Your solution is: well, it's her problem, and if her kids do not eat for a week because of the disposal fees, then tough on her.

Everyone else, I appreciate your comments. I think your comments will help her find a solution to her problem.
posted by Flood at 8:31 PM on December 11, 2008 [29 favorites]


Listen, Flood, I didn't say that I hate your friend, and I'm sure she has lots of admirable qualities. But I do hate that attitude in people, and it's an attitude that makes me generally misanthropic when I encounter it. I don't exclude all the other people you mentioned from responsibility, but you weren't asking about them. The fact that they were lax doesn't let your friend off the hook - she took positive action for profit and has to live with the consequences.

I have no problem with people who pick up scrap - I have a major problem with people who are happy to take the profit from the 99% of the scrap they pick up that's benign, but don't want to take responsibility for the stuff that's toxic. I might feel differently if it had looked like a regular piece of scrap and turned out to be radioactive or something like that - but it was a freakin' jar of mercury! If she doesn't have the money, it's up to her to store it safely until she does, or find someone willing to pay to have it disposed of properly. Incidentally, I'm sure that if she phones up an environmental NGO with her dilemma they'll be happy to pay for it rather than see it dumped.
posted by Dasein at 8:47 PM on December 11, 2008 [6 favorites]


You make it sound like money will float out of her pocket if she calls the DEP to find out how to deal with her mercury. I assure you, that will not be the case.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:49 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


She was hired to clean out the building. Her choices upon discovering the mercury were to throw it in the dumpster, or attempt to recycle it. Yes, she thought she could profit by recycling it - but either way she was hired to get rid of everything. (One of the reasons she gets the work she gets is because she finds ways to profit from the trash she is cleaning out. She believes recycling as much as possible is her part in doing something good for the world.) Perhaps you are right, Dasein, she should not have seen any extra profit in that trash, and just thrown it in the dumpster, as she was hired to do.

And yes, she is as thick as ten planks. This is NOT a smart woman. My first reaction when she told me the story was, "didnt you know it was dangerous?" She honestly didnt.

She asked me, as someone she could trust, what I thought she should do. I honestly did not know. She was told at the scrap yard that she would have to pay to dispose of it, and that it would be expensive.

But, I now think that most of you are right - there has to be some way that she can safely dispose of it without having to pay a dumping fee.

It is easy for all of us to just say: call these people or those people - but for a poor, uneducated woman, who lives on razor's edge budget - all of this is scary. She is completely freaked by the whole thing. I know she will be afraid to call the DEP. But, I guess I will call for her.
posted by Flood at 9:34 PM on December 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


Man, some of you guys are being really harsh. This woman cleans buildings for a living and is willing to climb into dumpsters after scrap. I don't think she's raking in the kind of money a toxic waste disposal or clean up would take. The dental practice who knowingly left their hazardous waste in an empty building should be responsible for it. The building owner just pawned off his problem on someone who didn't know better and isn't up for a good citizen award either.

I looked on google and found Florida had a project to get dentists to recycle amalgam (silver and mercury filling) scrap. I don't know if they'll take pure mercury but it's worth asking since it was found in an old dental office.

Amalgam Recycler List for Florida, 2007 for Dental filling recycling

http://tinyurl.com/AmalgamRecyclerList

( http://www.dep.state.fl.us/waste/quick_topics/publications/shw/mercury/AmalgamRecyclerList042507.pdf )

If that doesn't work...

Bureau of Solid & Hazardous Waste #850-245-8706 MS #4555
Division of Waste Management #850-245-8705 MS #4500
2600 Blair Stone Road, Tallahassee, Florida 32399-2400

This is the direct link to the look up for "Local Government Household Hazardous Waste sites".

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/waste/categories/hazardous/pages/localgovhhwweb.htm

I'm not a lawyer etc. but I'm guessing that the state of Florida would much rather have 3lbs. of mercury safely disposed of or recycled than come after your friend for the money to do it. If it does cost anything, odds are the dental practice would be the ones on the hook. If she's worried, the previous advice of calling anonymously from a public phone makes sense but I think she'll be ok. It would probably be a good idea to have the name of the building owner and the address of where the mercury came from on hand if she needs to pass the liability for this mess along.

Also nth-ing the "do not dump this in the woods". I'm pretty sure Florida's aquifers aren't that far down. Your friend could be drinking mercury laced water in a few years if those woods are nearby and who knows what it could screw up down the road.

Good luck to your friend and make sure she stores it safely until she can figure out someone who's qualified to take handle it.
posted by stray thoughts at 9:40 PM on December 11, 2008 [5 favorites]


Her choices upon discovering the mercury were to throw it in the dumpster, or attempt to recycle it.

Okay, fair enough. The way you presented it originally made it seem that she asked to take it home as an alternative to having management take care of it. I stand corrected.
posted by Dasein at 9:50 PM on December 11, 2008


She could always drop the dime on the owner. Improper storage of mercury is a big deal.
posted by electroboy at 9:50 PM on December 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


I can't imagine they'd make her pay to dispose of it. This kind of thing is generally taken very seriously.

Or yeah, have her call around to university/high school chemistry departments. I had a science teacher in high school who had a huge jar of the stuff, and would stick his hand in and exhort students to do the same.

Of course one day he dropped it and they evacuated the whole school. Imagine the damage it could do dumped in the woods.
posted by yellowbinder at 10:12 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Flood, take it yourself and dispose of it yourself. You've got the smarts to do the right thing, to figure out the right place to dispose of the material. You also have enough conscience to want to help her, to ask about proper disposal here. At this point, I think you should step in and take responsibility from her, so she'll breath easier and you'll know that she didn't dump it improperly. You'll do a good deed, and you'll know that the environment is safer for it. If there is a disposal fee and you can't afford it, get a receipt and send it to me. I'll pay for it.

As for the discussion about the working poor, poverty, greed, and ignorance, it's clear that there are a few guilty parties here, and right now you're trying to make sure that your friend doesn't fall into that classification herself. This kind of thing is an inherent risk in what she does, and her being poor doesn't absolve her of responsibility, but that's why you're a good friend to advise her to do the right thing.
posted by incessant at 11:21 PM on December 11, 2008 [11 favorites]


I'm not a lawyer etc. but I'm guessing that the state of Florida would much rather have 3lbs. of mercury safely disposed of or recycled than come after your friend for the money to do it.

The problem is, you're assuming rational behavior on the part of the state, when the state isn't a rational actor, it's a pile of laws, regulations, habits, and nervous ticks, implemented and executed by people who, for the most part, are just doing their job.

I'm favoring krautland's 'stop by the nearest fire station, "I think this is mercury", and ask them to dispose of it' approach.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:22 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Some people are advocating putting it in a sealed glass jar and keeping it around the house as an ornament. This sounds cool but is a really, really bad idea.
House fires can happen to anyone at any time and your friend doesn't really want to explain to the insurance company why they should pay to haul away the top 3 feet of topsoil for 50 feet in every direction. The neighbors may be a little upset with having their houses condemned as well.
posted by AndrewStephens at 1:03 AM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Some people are advocating putting it in a sealed glass jar and keeping it around the house as an ornament. This sounds cool but is a really, really bad idea.

Agreed. It's not just the possibility of housefires - do you (or your friend) really want to hope that no one manages to break the jar containing THREE POUNDS of mercury, effectively rendering the house a Superfund zone? Perhaps I'm just a klutz, but I can think of dozens of ways that sealed glass bottle could end up being dropped, cracked, or crushed, and we're not talking a gram of mercury in a thermometer. Mercury is really, really awesome. Totally agreed. And it's perhaps the most beautiful element. But it's dangerous, even in its non-methylated forms, and - speaking as someone who handles some nasty stuff in lab daily - I would not want to have a huge jar of mercury sitting on my shelf at home, no matter how gorgeous and cool it is.

One caveat on the "donate it to a university" front: universities and labs pay for disposal of extra-hazardous stuff too. While they have access to programs that deal with the disposal of chemicals like mercury, they may not want to take responsibility (moral or financial) for disposing of large amounts of it. Some cities have city-sponsored hazardous waste disposal days - perhaps your friend might be able to take advantage of those? Though she should call in advance and find out if they accept mercury on those days.

But please, please, please: any advice here is better than dumping it under the woods, thereby contaminating who knows how much land and hurting God only knows how many people and animals.
posted by ubersturm at 1:30 AM on December 12, 2008


I'd be willing to contribute money to help pay for the disposal..

Let's all show compassion for each other folks.

OP, please memail me if you can get costings etc.
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:47 AM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mercury is nasty, nasty stuff. For heaven's sake, the EPA and the DEP don't want 3lbs of it just hanging around. CALL THEM YOURSELF. Like, right now. They aren't going to charge her! Just say she found it and wants to know how to properly dispose of it. You could always call the local dump...most of them have occasional hazardous waste pick-up days, but they won't we equipped to take care of such a large volume of such a toxic substance.

You could always do the fire station thing, but really, the EPA/DEP is the way to go on this.
Oh, and don't bother calling schools/universities. Labs who work with mercury are only allowed to obtain it through certified vendors.
posted by emd3737 at 5:00 AM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, she should put it in a sealed glass jar regardless of what she ultimately does with it. Handling elemental mercury isn't very dangerous, it's the vapors what get you.
posted by electroboy at 6:47 AM on December 12, 2008


Transporting mercury: one tricky thing is that if the container is not full, it can slosh around with significant momentum; heavier containers can knock down a person that could easily hold the weight. Potential to break a glass container.

So, let someone qualified do the handling.
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:49 AM on December 12, 2008


Her choices upon discovering the mercury were to throw it in the dumpster, or attempt to recycle it.

This is absolutely wrong, the real choices are to infrom the building's owner or to dispose of it properly. This is why "scappers" need to be regulated by the government. The idea of a cleaning woman running around with a lidless bucket of mercury is disturbing and highly dangerous. The amount she breathed in is non-trivial. I would have her get a test from her doctor when this is all over. She probably has some level of heavy metal poisoning now. She's probably got close to being a jokey headline at fark. "News: Cleaning lady finds 3 lbs of mercury, walks around town trying to sell it. Fark: In a container without a lid and breathes in enough to send her to the hospital."

Call your local EPA office. Dont dump it in the woods. In the future tell your friend not to play with stuff she doesn't understand. This is the kind of advice that saves lives. Today its mercury, tomorrow its a bag of arsenic or a box of broken asbestos tiles.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:51 AM on December 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


Potential to break a glass container.

She's been carrying it around in a bucket up to this point. Anything is an improvement.

This is why "scappers" need to be regulated by the government.

They are regulated by the government. She's a cleaning lady who makes some money on the side picking up recyclables.
posted by electroboy at 6:57 AM on December 12, 2008


You have no comment for the dentist who left the bucket of mercury in his office. Or the building owner (an educated, wealthy man) who paid her to clean the office, and allowed her to walk away with the mercury

They weren't threatening to pour it out it in the woods.

She was hired to clean out the building. Her choices upon discovering the mercury were to throw it in the dumpster, or attempt to recycle it.

This is what is technically known as a "lie." She could have simply cleaned around it and said "Owner, you have a bucket of mercury in there. You'll need to have someone else deal with that." She might, of course, be too dumb to know that.

That said, if she or her husband can lie convincingly, she could avoid most fear of having to pay by taking it to a fire station and saying that she came across it in the national forest while looking for scrap, or by calling the hazardous crap disposal people with that story plus "I took it because I was afraid kids might get into it."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:42 AM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


TAKE IT TO A SCHOOL!

I teach physics and if someone came into school and offered me 3.5lb of mercury I'd just about bite their arms off!
posted by alby at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2008


Find out what it costs to dispose of and chip in to help her do it.

That dentist needs his butt kicked.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:09 AM on December 12, 2008


TAKE IT TO A SCHOOL!

For god's sake, don't take a bucket of mercury into a public building. Unless you want the building shut down for a week and yourself arrested for reckless endangerment of public health.


I'm a lunatic, but I'd get a nice glass or crystal container, pour it in, seal it up and have a conversation piece.


No, no, no... don't try to transfer it to a new container. You'll just end up with a contaminated bucket in addition to mercury in a breakable container, and risk poisoning yourself in the process. Just seal it up the way it is and keep it in a cool place.
posted by zennie at 9:56 AM on December 12, 2008


TAKE IT TO A SCHOOL!

For god's sake, don't take a bucket of mercury into a public building. Unless you want the building shut down for a week and yourself arrested for reckless endangerment of public health.


Let's compromise and call first! I'm our school's IT admin, and I get people calling on a fairly regular basis wanting to donate their old computers. Kind gesture, but I decline 90% of the time because the computers are so old I'd end up having to dispose of them anyways which costs us money.
posted by jmd82 at 10:10 AM on December 12, 2008


It's really, really important that she make sure it is appropriately recycled. However, I'm not trusting, and she might get nailed for the cost of disposal. Any calls should be made using a different name. Can she return it to the original site, and call the DEP to report it? She should be crazy-careful with it, so she doesn't get poisoned.
posted by theora55 at 11:05 AM on December 12, 2008


The fire department is the solution. I talked to her twice today, told her the advice given here. She has a family member who is a fire-fighter. He has agreed to allow her to bring it in without any questions - though, he said he will look like an idiot when he tells his chief, "someone dropped off this mercury, and I let them just walk away - now should I call the haz-mat team?" Nevertheless, they will dispose of it properly.

She clearly was not smart enough to simply leave the mercury alone. Also, she tried to go back to the building owner, and was told that she was hired to clean out the building, and anything she took is now hers. She was told that he could have his lawyer call her to explain that. My friend is in no position to fight the former building owner, who in my mind is the real bad guy.

In some ways, I think we should all be grateful that she is a scrapper - others would have just tossed it into the dumpster, as the building owner was intending. This woman recycles more metal in one month than most people recycle in their life-time. And despite her trauma, she is going to see that it is properly and safely disposed of.

But, the main thing I wanted to say is - we have a safe solution now. The fire department.

Also, thank you to those who offered to help help any dumping fee. That is a true generosity of spirit, and I commend you.
posted by Flood at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


Now, please encourage her and her husband to get tested for heavy metal poisoning.
posted by Zozo at 2:18 PM on December 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


damn dirty ape writes "This is why 'scappers' need to be regulated by the government."
posted by Mitheral at 3:38 PM on December 12, 2008


Glad to hear about the resolution Flood.

Just a quick resource for anyone else interested in this issue in the Mid-Atlantic area. The Clean Air Council - which, in the interest of full disclosure, I happen to work for - does a lot of work on mercury issues. Here is a page of resources and information for people interested in mercury disposal and public health issues.

http://www.cleanair.org/Air/mercury.html
posted by greekphilosophy at 3:59 PM on December 12, 2008


Good for you, Flood, for understanding the complexity of the situation and coming to MeFi for help. (And then dodging all the flak.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:24 PM on December 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Flood, thanks for the update. I was hoping you would post and say what happened. I'm glad your friend's cousin the fire fighter agreed to help her out but now I've got a vision in my head of him ending up as an item in "News of the Weird". Good for all of you for finding a way to handle this safely!
posted by stray thoughts at 10:29 PM on December 13, 2008


If mercury was in an open container in the building, the new owners or occupants might like to know that.
posted by yohko at 4:08 PM on December 18, 2008


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