Is Mercury Poisoning a Hidden Risk in Your Home?

Is Mercury Poisoning a Hidden Risk in Your Home?

Perhaps you disposed of your old mercury thermometer years ago (properly I hope; see below) and switched to a digital version. Perhaps you thought that move eliminated the mercury from your home. But even if that thermometer is gone, chances are you still have mercury poisoning risks hidden in your home-and in you-and it's time to take inventory.

Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that exists in three forms: methylmercury, elemental mercury, and other mercury compounds (both organic and inorganic). The form most often found in the home is elemental mercury, which is the liquid form that emits dangerous vapors that can be absorbed through the lungs and skin. Exposure to elemental mercury, especially in an area that is not well ventilated, can cause tremors, muscle weakness, headache, insomnia, and emotional and behavioral changes. High exposure can result in respiratory failure, kidney damage, and death.

Mercury can enter the body through the skin, lungs, dental amalgams, food, or vaccines. In the latter two cases, methylmercury is the form involved. Methylmercury is similar to elemental mercury in that it also can cause significant health issues such as learning disabilities, speech and hearing impairment, vision problems, muscle weakness, and lack of coordination. Infants and young children are most often the susceptible victims of methylmercury exposure.

Read about mercury in dental amalgams

Although exposure to mercury alone is dangerous, multiple chemical mixtures can be particularly hazardous. A new review in the journal Current Opinions in Pediatrics, points out that impulsive behavior and cognition problems associated with lead exposure can be impacted by mercury. The authors warn that metals interact in the body and can lead to health problems, especially in children.

Mercury in your home

In addition to mercury thermometers, here are some other places mercury may be hiding in your home. It pays to be aware of these potential hazards, especially if you have infants or small children at home.

• Alkaline batteries. If you have old (prior to 1996) alkaline batteries that you stored away and forgot about or that are still in an unused battery-run device, dispose of the batteries in battery recycling or hazardous waste.

• Antiques. Mercury was commonly used in some items that are now considered antiques and that may be in your home. Old grandfather clocks (the weights and counterweights can have mercury), barometers, mirrors, and silvered glass are among such items. While there's no need to get rid of these objects, you should be aware they contain a toxic substance and exercise caution when moving them.

• Blood-pressure cuffs. Older models may contain mercury.

• Button cell batteries. These are found in many common household items, including watches, toys, handheld games, and hearing aids.

• Fluorescent and CFL bulbs. All fluorescent and compact fluorescent bulbs contain some amount of mercury, although some have less than others. Broken or burnt out fluorescent and CFL bulbs should be placed in a plastic bag, sealed, and taken to a hazardous waste collection site. Although such disposal methods are required by only a few states, it is highly recommended you do so to help protect the environment.

• Mercurochrome. Do you still have this remedy in your medicine chest? Time to bid it adieu with hazardous waste.

• Paint. If you have any old latex paint (prior to 1990) hanging around the house, dispose of it at a hazardous waste site.

• Refrigerator/freezer. Fish are a reservoir for many toxins, and mercury is one of them. Fish is generally considered to be a healthy food, but you need to know which fish contain the highest and least amounts of mercury. The Environmental Protection Agency has a comprehensive list of such fish.

• Skin-lightening creams, soaps, and lotions. Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and other countries are known to export creams and other cosmetics that are extremely high in mercury. Such products are used to lighten the skin, fade freckles, and treat age spots and acne. Dispose of any such cosmetics, especially if you have children in your home.

• Thermostats. Some of the older thermostats have a mercury switch inside. You can have it replaced with an electric switch, which has no mercury.

Read about mercury and kids' health

How to handle mercury safely

If you have self-contained mercury (e.g., thermometers, paint containing mercury), you can bring such items to your local hazardous waste disposal site. Check with your town, city, or county waste disposal department for details.

If you have broken lightbulbs or thermometers, clean them up carefully (see below) and place the pieces in double plastic bags for hazardous waste disposal.

How to clean up liquid mercury spills

• Avoid inhaling the vapors. Ventilate the area by opening windows or doors and stay out of the area for about 15 minutes

• Use something disposal to clean up the spill, such as cardboard to scoop up any broken pieces of the thermometer or bulbs. Do not use a vacuum or broom.

• Use duct tape or wide masking tape to pick up any tiny pieces.

• Clean the area where the item broke with a damp paper towel.

• Place the towel and other materials in a sealed container and dispose of it with hazardous waste. Do not throw it away in the trash.

• Wash your hands.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that can still be found in everyday items in your home. A "heads up" can prevent you and your family from exposure.

Image: daily invention

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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.