Mercury: Just lookin' for a good time.
August 22, 2006 1:49 PM   Subscribe

What are some fun and creative things to do with mercury, & when I'm done how do I dispose of it?!?

Alright, I just took apart an old thermostat and have found a little glass tube of mercury. It looks like it'd be really fun to play with. Now I already know what to do, if I spill it, but I'm not really worried about that. So, please... any creative ideas would be great.

Also, I live in a small town that only has Hazardous materials collection twice a year. Should I feel guilty about tossing this thing in the trash, instead of having it sit around in my closed for a few months?
posted by eli_d to Grab Bag (28 answers total)
 
Don't. Clean it up properly and do NOT throw it in the trash. Please.
posted by nekton at 1:56 PM on August 22, 2006


Seconded. Don't.
posted by electroboy at 2:01 PM on August 22, 2006


Yeah; mercury's *really* nasty schidt. As much fun as it seems like it will be to play around with it, you'll really be better off not...
posted by baylink at 2:08 PM on August 22, 2006


I used to get mercury out of old oil-field switches. Mercury can be lots of fun, just be safe with it - it's kind of like playing with acid. We used to polish dimes with mercury and just shake it around and watch it. We would put it in a pimento jar and play with it that way - I wouldn't advocate holding it in your hand.

I could join the chorus on this and say don't do it, but what's the fun in that? I figure drinking will kill me years before exposure to the miniscule amounts of mercury I played with as a child. But given the state of panic engendered over even the smallest bit of it, I wouldn't tell anyone of the 'panicky' persuasion that I had it.
posted by CRS at 2:14 PM on August 22, 2006


I did that once - just clipped the end of the tube and got the mercury out. It's really cool. I couldn't find much to do besides roll it around in my hands and marvel at it, but it might be cool to freeze it in the freezer and play with it then. Watch out, because it will pick up dust and I couldn't figure out any way to clean it.

Yes, granted, it's bad for you, but if you're healthy, and nobody pregnant/young/sick is going to be around, what the hell. People are a lot more resilient than the EPA and friends give us credit for. Just don't keep it around for very long and don't forget that it will evaporate into the air and soak into surfaces.
posted by pocams at 2:14 PM on August 22, 2006


Yes, granted, it's bad for you, but if you're healthy, and nobody pregnant/young/sick is going to be around, what the hell.

Hey man this is the earth, there are always sick young pregnant people around. Playing with mercury may seem cool, but it's not. Please leave it alone. Don't take this stuff out of the switch, because someone may end up paying for your folly years from now.
posted by Mister_A at 2:27 PM on August 22, 2006


There's no such thing as good mercury, so I would recommend don't. You probably have elemental mercury there, so it is not going to be very toxic - it won't be absorbed through hands and the mercury vapor is probably not enough to do anything bad to you. But since there is nothing good about mercury, you won't find sensible people advising you handle it. You will find advice leaning toward the overly cautious. For example:

What never to do about a mercury spill:


* Never sweep the area with a broom. Sweeping breaks the mercury into smaller droplets, further contaminating the room and the broom.
* 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.
* Never pour mercury down the sink drain. It may stay in the plumbing.
* Never wash mercury contaminated clothes in the washing machine. Mercury can contaminate the washing machine.
* Never walk around if your shoes or socks may be contaminated with mercury. That will spread the mercury droplets all over the house.
* Never use household cleaning products to clean the spill, particularly products that contain ammonia or chlorine. These chemicals will react violently with mercury, releasing a toxic gas.

You get the idea? And that is with elemental mercury, the most "innocent form."

Other forms of mercury such as organic mercury are really bad stuff and you might as well hit yourself over the head with a hammer.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:29 PM on August 22, 2006


Wow, so far quite a lot of criticism coming from people who don't actually describe how I can properly dispose of this stuff without driving 200 miles to the next big city that collects hazmat materials (thus polluting the environment with all that emission) or leaving it in my closet for 6 months (risking a real potentially hazard event that I wouldn't be able to control). Props to the two posters above that actually attempted to answer the question instead of just offering criticism without answers. :-)
posted by eli_d at 2:34 PM on August 22, 2006


Note that mercury can eat through aluminum, which is why it's been on the "forbidden on planes" list long before terrists (maybe even before tourists).

I also played with mercury a lot when young. Fun! Make coppery things shiny with it. Make a barometer (if you have lots!) Play with it in palm of hand. Clean by squeezing through chamois leather. Keep it in a stoppered bottle. Just don't vaporise it (but I'm doubtful it will vaporise into the air without heat, as pocams suggested. I think most gets lost just by fracturing into miniscule droplets which get overlooked.
posted by anadem at 2:35 PM on August 22, 2006


Fill a big vat with it and try to walk across the surface. Kodos to anyone who calculates how far you'll sink in.
posted by malp at 2:46 PM on August 22, 2006 [2 favorites]


eli_d, you didn't ask for suggestions on how to properly dispose of it. You asked for suggestions on fun things to do with mercury. You also asked: "Should I feel guilty about tossing this thing in the trash, instead of having it sit around in my closed for a few months?"

By all means, play with it, touch it, drink it, snort it. Just don't throw it in the trash. YOU chose to take apart a thermostat. Now don't bitch that you have no way to dispose of the mercury that doesn't inconvenience YOU. Keep it in your closet if you must, until the next semi-annual pick-up, or drive the 200 miles.
posted by peep at 3:03 PM on August 22, 2006


eli_d, you didn't ask for suggestions on how to properly dispose of it

Hmmm... maybe I'm not reading my question right, when it says: What are some fun and creative things to do with mercury, & when I'm done how do I dispose of it?!?

Thanks for the great answers so far... I'll keep you all posted on what I choose to do with the mercury that came out of the old thermostat that had to be replace in the old rental apartment that I live in.
posted by eli_d at 3:15 PM on August 22, 2006


Depends on where you live, Eli_D, many communities have a toxic waste disposal day, where you bring all your noxious chemicals (paint thinner, etc...) to a site, like the local fairgrounds, and they dispose of it safely for you.

CRS, thanks for the good memory - my Dad worked in oil and gas too, and we had mercury around the house as kids, plus lots of other fun substances like muriatic acid (its "old school" name), crude oil, and many other things that would cause panic attacks today.
posted by Liosliath at 3:37 PM on August 22, 2006


iirc, the glass vial has 2 metal contacts which the thermostat uses to detect if the metal spring has moved (because the mercury will flow to one side of the glass vial and cover both contacts, thus denoting a temp change as the metal contracts/expands). This can be reused as-is for some fun hacking.

build a little, low-power, switched circuit that is on when the mercury completes the contacts. now you have a tilt-sensor. hook it up to a flashing light and mount it horizontally in your car left-to-right. now you'll know whenever your car is tilting ;)

or attach the vial with light trigger to a protracter & set screw, so that you can dial in a preset angle. now you have a light-up protractor that you can use to align stuff at given angles (I'm building a house right now, so all my ideas are construction related...)
posted by jpeacock at 3:40 PM on August 22, 2006


Sorry, I should have read all the posts. I think you'd be safe keeping it in your closet, and should try to avoid tossing it in the trash. Found some interesting reading here on storing mercury.
posted by Liosliath at 3:44 PM on August 22, 2006


Kodos to anyone who calculates how far you'll sink in

mercury is 5.5g/cm3 (about). another quick google found the density of school kids (yes, that was the first good link I found), about 1.10g/cm3.

You'd end up sinking about 20%, that would be a cool experience - ever better than floating in Salt Lake or the Dead Sea.

Alas, you don't have enough mercury to make a fountain.
posted by jpeacock at 3:46 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Mercury is very toxic and lethal. Call the local municipal waste department and ask what they suggest. Twice a year seems very infrequent given the number of mercury thermometers that are still around. Definately do not throw away in the trash.
posted by dendrite at 4:02 PM on August 22, 2006


Play with it carefully in your (clean, unwounded, no-jewelry) hands, briefly, at least once; join the crowd of us who have _touched_ elemental mercury and lived; the few, the proud, the hardly-insane-at-all who know just what a wonderful experience it is to hold LIQUID METAL.

Then, rather than drive 200 miles to a 'proper facility' which will also probably CHARGE you to take it away, call the police. Say "OMG I found this stuff and I wuz lookin' at it an I think its MURKURY, officer! I heard on da interwebs how bad it is! Take it away before it hurts someone!" and I bet they will take it away (just as they will also take away ammo, firearms, and fireworks you may find that you do not want and do not know how to dispose of 'safely'. And you will get your picture in the local paper "Area Man's Quick Thinking Saves City".
posted by Rubber Soul at 4:22 PM on August 22, 2006


I've still got about a quarter of a liter of mecury at my folk's home. Besides the coolness factor of swishing around mercury in your hands (and it is cool as heck... don't let anyone try and talk you out of it), there's not a whole lot you can do with it. If you were feeling industrious, you could build a mercury switch. That's about it.

As for disposal... if you've got enough of it, you could try donating it to a highschool. Most science departments will have some mercury in their back storage room; I can't see the harm in adding a few more drops to the mix (ask first, obviously).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:08 PM on August 22, 2006


Sheesh, couldn't you settle for gallium?
posted by pullayup at 5:17 PM on August 22, 2006


Most science departments will have some mercury in their back storage room
No they don't. We can't even have mercury thermometers. Schools are the first ones to jump on the "chemical x is dangerous" bandwagons.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 5:41 PM on August 22, 2006


If you have a lot of mercury, put some in a bowl. Put a very strong magnet next to the bowl. Dip one wire in the center and another at the edge. Apply current and watch the mercury spin into a vortex.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:44 PM on August 22, 2006 [2 favorites]


No they don't. We can't even have mercury thermometers.

Just because you're not allowed to use anything fun in high school doesn't change the fact that just about every high school has a store room where old chemicals are sitting around, unused. At least, the high schools in my area do. YMMV.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:58 PM on August 22, 2006


If you have enough mercury, try floating improbable things in it, like bb's or in one demonstration I saw: cast iron.

Conduct electricty through it.

Try to cut it with a plastic knife.

Then call your local utility company and tell them that your old thermostat broke open while you were taking it down and how do I get rid of the mercury?

You could also make Mercury Fulminate and risk blowing off a hand and contaminating the site.

For bonus points, after you've had your fun, remove a small chunk of your flesh and feed it to a tuna fish, yelling, "How's does that feel, you bioconcentrating, ichthyological bastard!"
posted by plinth at 6:16 PM on August 22, 2006 [5 favorites]


I don't want to downplay the seriousness of mercury poisoning, if it gets into your system, but there are only two likely ways that it can get into you. One, is you have an open sore which comes into contact with mercury. Bad Idea JeansTM. Don't do that. Two, you inhale mercury vapor. No matter how hard you try, there will always be a bit of mercury vapor in the air when you handle mercury. The real danger of inhaling mercury is if you spill it, and it is not cleaned up completely, you end up inhaling small amounts over a long period of time. Don't spill it (or otherwise vaporize it) and you'll be fine.

Anecdote: My ~70 year old chem prof in college would stick his hand all the way down the beaker containg mercury. Freaked me out until he explained the relative danger of what he was doing.
posted by achmorrison at 9:39 PM on August 22, 2006


Just because you're not allowed to use anything fun in high school doesn't change the fact that just about every high school has a store room where old chemicals are sitting around, unused. At least, the high schools in my area do. YMMV.

Yeah, there was a big jar of mercury in my high school.

There was also an electric/electronics classroom, from the days of tubes. Centerpiece - a big transformer enclosure that would put out 0-300 volts, AC or DC. This could be routed out to the desks for the students to learn how to fix TVs or whatever.

Now there's safety, and much less learning.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:40 PM on August 22, 2006


University labs have facilities for storing and disposing of mercury, and if you've only got a small amount, you could ask them nicely.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:16 PM on August 23, 2006


The mercury switch was a great idea. If you'd like to see a video I made of it hooked up to a small penlight, go here (.3g2 - needs quicktime / quicktime alternative )

After I get tired of playing with this thing (which could be awhile), I will check with the science lab at the local high school / middle school that I'll be interning at the semester.

If they won't take it, I'll put it in a hard container in my closet with a label on it that says:

"Hey man this is the earth, there are always sick young pregnant people around. Playing with mercury may seem cool, but it's not. Please leave it alone."


Maybe the bi-yearly hazmat collection will come sooner than expected.

-eli
"trying to be green can be as easy as where you live, or as difficult."
posted by eli_d at 6:26 PM on August 23, 2006


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