Broken thermometer
March 23, 2006 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I just broke a glass thermometer and can't find the mercury. Help!

I dropped a glass thermometer, which broke into pieces. According to the manual that came with it, it was a mercury thermometer. Unfortunately, I can't find the mercury to clean it up. Some of the glass pieces landed on the wood floor and some landed on the rug, so it could be on either surface.

Is there any way I can find it? What's the best way to clean the rug and the floor if I don't? So far, the only thing googling has told me consistently is that I shouldn't vacuum.
posted by jrossi4r to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
How do I clean up a spill from a broken thermometer?

Scroll about halfway down.
posted by Neiltupper at 1:51 PM on March 23, 2006

The mercury has probably spread all over the room -- if there is a flat surface it will go far. Luckily when I did this various objects blocked its path and I was able to collect most of it in a relatively contained area, but you may have to basically search the whole room. Hopefully someone else can give you better suggestions for dealing with it, and better risk assessment -- the internet was a bit hysterical over the danger and I couldn't tell whether it was as serious as the various gov't sites made out. I wish I had thought to post to askmefi when I did this.

The other thing I gathered from googling was that you should make sure the room is well ventilated for a while, and if it's a bedroom maybe not sleep there. Mercury vapor is the real danger -- if it's in solid(ish) form, you would probably even be fine swallowing it, but if it's evaporated, there's a real risk. Google suggested very extreme things to do about mercury in a rug -- it seems there's no easy way at all to remove it, and getting rid of the rug was the best bet. I have no idea how necessary this really is, and luckily it wasn't much of an issue for me. Good luck.
posted by advil at 1:53 PM on March 23, 2006

Yeesh, I was about to write, "just vacuum it up," and then from the link above:

Never use an ordinary household vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. Vacuuming vaporizes the mercury and increases the concentration of mercury in the air that can result in poisoning.

OK, I'll just shut up now.
posted by frogan at 1:59 PM on March 23, 2006

I used to be a poisons information officer. This is one of the most common household calls we got.

Really, the amount of mercury in a thermometer is not enough to cause any sort of real problem. That said, you don't want to be rolling around in it, so might as well take steps to minimize the (small) exposure hazard. Ventilation is the main one. Otherwise if you see droplets you can try to use a syringe or something suctiony (not a vacuum!) to pull them into a plastic, sealable bag.
posted by gaspode at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, liquid mercury is a hazardous substance and really should not be thrown in the trash when you do find it. Collect it and take it to the local hazardous waste facility.
posted by JJ86 at 2:02 PM on March 23, 2006

Probably most of it is in your carpet. The risk is minimal, unless someone lays down and sucks on the carpet for a while. General advice might be to point a fan at that section of the carpet, open a window and spend some time out of the house. You do consume small amounts of mercury on a daily basis; the goal is just to keep your exposure down, it's not an instant-death sort of situation. If you want, skip eating tuna for a while to make up for the thermometer.

If you had, say, a quart of mercury you might be in trouble. But a thermometer has less than a gram.
posted by jellicle at 2:12 PM on March 23, 2006

Response by poster: You're right, advil. A lot of the advice I was finding online was a bit hysterical. I feel much better after the answers here.

I still can't find even the tiniest drop of the stuff, but I've got the windows open, the fan going and I'm taking the kid out to dinner. Guess that's pretty much all I can do right now. Thanks all!
posted by jrossi4r at 2:22 PM on March 23, 2006

If you do find a drop, it's totally neat stuff to play with.

Ah, the olden days,
posted by desuetude at 4:57 PM on March 23, 2006

Take off any gold jewelry before you try to deal with the and mercury do not mix, or rather, they mix far too easily, and the mercury will dissolve the gold.

I never would have suspected until an incident with my wife's jewelry, a mercury thermometer, a marble bathroom counter, and gravity.
posted by malocchio at 5:06 PM on March 23, 2006

can you turn the lights off and shine a flashlight nearly parallel to the floor to see if anything glints?
posted by clarahamster at 6:05 PM on March 23, 2006

I had a similar mercury spill a couple of months ago, and I second the flashlight in darkened room suggestion. Also, you can use duct tape to get up those itty bitty spheres. (Yes, really.)
posted by Soliloquy at 8:10 PM on March 23, 2006

Get a silver spoon and rub over the area. silver picks up mercury very well, and wont dissolve. a silver dime would work also. a piece of old un wanted silver jewelry maybe.
posted by hortense at 9:14 PM on March 23, 2006

Gaspode has the best answer. Ventilate the best you can and avoid the area for a while.

If you see any blobs try to sweep them into a sealed container. Something thin, like a piece of paper works well as a dust collector. As you've discovered vacuums are a bad idea. Mercury is so heavy anyway that vacuums have a very hard time picking it up.

Note that silver and gold both dissolve in mercury. That's like advising someone to soak up water with sugar. I've done (metallic) mercury clean-up with zinc filings---it forms an amalgam like tooth fillings.
posted by bonehead at 5:12 AM on March 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

The problem with mercury is that it is so dense, when it encounters a hard surface during a fall it "shatters." Since you've already looked, and not found anything, you probably have 10,000 microscopic mercury droplets in that room right now, which unless you have a toddler (or are pregnant) isn't worth worrying about - small exposure is not harmful. If you do have a toddler (or are pregnant), I might have a friend toss the rug and dry sweep the floor with a microfiber cloth for you.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:02 AM on March 24, 2006

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