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by Alliance Environmental · November 18, 2011

Mercury: Stay Away!

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Mercury is the only metal on Earth that is liquid under normal pressures and temperatures.  It is found around the world in deposits of Cinnabar, which is itself also highly toxic. 

There are some rules about disposal of mercury that you should know, but first…

The History of Mercury

Mercury has been used for thousands of years, but not for the same reasons we use it today.  It has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs as old as 1500 BCE.  In China and Tibet, mercury was used to heal broken bones, lengthen lifespans and for better health.  One Chinese Emperor was poisoned by a mixture of mercury and powdered jade that was intended to make him live forever!

The ancient Greeks and Romans used mercury in cosmetics, which sometimes caused deformities.  Alchemists thought of mercury as the “first matter” from which all other metals were formed and it was used in processes that attempted to transmute other metals into gold. 

Mercury became an important resource in the 16th Century when it was used to refine silver ores in Spain and Spain’s colonies in America.  Over 100,000 tons of mercury were mined in Peru between the mid-16th and mid 19th Centuries. 

Decorative pools could be filled with Mercury in Spain during that time and the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris sported a Mercury fountain designed by famous artist Alexander Calder.

Mercury has also been used for:
* Silvering mirrors
* Cleaning gun barrels
* Leveling roads
* Making hats
* Preserving wood

Peter Lewis Allen has written about mercury, “One eighteenth-century recipe called for mixing the liquid metal with hot chocolate, though the author cautioned against this exotic beverage because he felt that the ‘chocolate’ was too dangerous.”

Properties of Mercury

Mercury is not a good conductor of heat, but is a moderate conductor of electricity.  It does not react with most acids and can dissolve easily into many other metals, but not iron so iron has historically been used to store and transport mercury.  You cannot bring mercury on an airplane because it forms an amalgam with aluminum so easily, if there were an accident, it could damage exposed aluminum airplane parts.

Modern Uses of Mercury

Mercury is used in the manufacture of industrial chemicals and some commonly used products. 

Mercury can be found in the new compact-fluorescent light bulbs.  It is still used in dental amalgam fillings, as a preservative in vaccines and other over-the-counter products including: antiseptic ointments, laxatives, eye drops, nasal sprays and diaper-rash ointments.

Thermometers and Blood-Pressure meters, and Thermostats which use mercury can still be found, but they are being phased out and you are encouraged to replace your mercury thermostats and thermometers as soon as possible, but be sure to dispose of them properly!

Health Effects of Mercury Poisoning

Mercury poisoning can occur when exposed to mercury vapor or water-soluble forms of the element, or by eating contaminated fish.  The mining and refining of mercury are causes of mercury exposure and poisoning.  Mercury poisoning can cause: vision, speech and hearing impairment; coordination problems; liver failure; and death.  The effects are dependent on the dosage and how long the exposure occurred. 

Safe Disposal of Mercury

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the disposal of mercury-containing equipment.

If you are renovating a structure and removing mercury thermostats, you need to dispose of them:
* With an HVAC wholesaler; or
* With your local government Household Hazardous Waste collection facility.

If you are found to have disposed of a mercury thermostat improperly, you could be fined as much as $25,000 for one violation and $25,000 per day for continuing violations.  That’s quite a fine!

As part of Alliance Environmental Group’s Demolition services, we adhere strictly to government regulations and dispose of all hazardous materials through a federally-licensed waste disposal company.  Click HERE to read more about our Hazardous Waste Cleanup Services.

Please be sure to dispose of your old thermometers and thermostats properly.  Protect the health of your family, your neighbors and your planet!

Wendy Stackhouse is the Online Community Manager for Alliance Environmental Group and AirTek Indoor Air Solutions.  She welcomes your comments!  For more news and tips or to ask questions of our experts, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!  For updates on indoor air challenges, Like us at AirTek on Facebook!

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