Mercury in the Workplace: How Big a Hazard
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Mercury is the only common liquid compound (Healthcare Environmental Resource Center) that is readily available and present in many household and workplace items. Its unique characteristics make it one of the most useful compounds around. Its combination of weight, ability to flow, electric conductivity and chemical stability makes it very versatile. Add to this is its high boiling point and low vapor pressure. On paper, mercury seems a very functional and practical compound to use. For some time people did think this very thought.
In recent years however, many studies have proven that mercury, or liquid silver (Olson, 2006), is a very hazardous compound. Mishandling of the compound may have many severe effects, not only on the health of people but in the environment as well. In humans though, as early as the 1800’s, there have been recorded incidents of the adverse effects of the compound. The term “Mad Hatter” (Earth 911) was actually lifted from one of these recorded incidents where it was still common to use mercury nitrate in felting processes. People who were using the material and those who were exposed to it through the purchase of these felt hats exhibited bizarre changes in behavior, thus the term. It was only in later years that it was finally concluded that the bizarre behavior observed was in fact mercury poisoning.
Despite the numerous documented reports on mercury poisoning, it remains highly present in modern day items commonly used in the home and the workplace. And in fact, the presence of mercury either in the home or the workplace may not be totally avoided. So it is most important to learn how to manage the use of this highly functional yet potentially dangerous compound.
This paper is going to explore the various exposures of people to mercury in the workplace for the purpose of outlining the proper behavior to observe around it. At the same time enumerate the possible counter measures to limit the exposure and potential contamination. In doing so, this paper will likewise touch on a few possible results of mercury poisoning to a person’s health and the environment. It will present alternatives to some common workplace items and the recommended levels of mercury that are easily managed.
II. Liquid Silver
Mercury, represented by the symbol Hg is the 80th entry in the Table of Elements. It goes by many different common names, most popular of which is liquid silver. The term liquid silver was derived from the Latin name of mercury, hydrargyrum that means watery or liquid.
The compound is used in many common items around the house and the workplace, from fluorescent lights to batteries (New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Service). Experts agree that mercury-free workplace is most unlikely to happen (Olson, 2006). Therefore, it is up to people to learn how to manage its levels and uses.
A. Common Forms of Mercury
There are three common forms of mercury. The first form is metallic liquid. Just like any other liquid substance, this form easily evaporates (Healthcare Environmental Resource Center). The vapors easily pass through the lungs by inhalation. Another form of mercury is the inorganic mercury salt, this particular form is highly toxic. Organic mercury compound is the last common form of this element. It is a fat-soluble compound that is most commonly absorb by a person through ingestion.
There are two ways for mercury to enter a person’s body system. The first and more common way is through inhalation (Medical News Today, 2004). In its metallic liquid and inorganic salt forms, mercury easily evaporates when released. The vapors can easily be inhaled either in small or large amounts by a person unknowingly. The other way is through ingestion. The organic mercury compound can easily be ingested through consumption of contaminated fish and other seafood. Usually this form settles and develops inside the fish after contamination (Kotelchuck, 2002).
In the workplace, there are several commonly used items that contain mercury, in any of the three forms. Flourescent lights, mercury batteries, thermometers, thermostats, and even pesticides (Blando, 2004) all contain mercury. Some medical equipment like x-ray machines, dental fillings, clock pendulums and even some athletic shoes (New Jersy Department of Health and Senior Services) too, contain some amount of mercury.
III. Exposure to Mercury in the Workplace
About two-thirds of the mercury in the atmosphere comes from human-made sources (Earth 911, 2007). The largest sources of mercury in the environment are coal-fired power plants and municipal waste incinerators (Kotelchuck, 2002). It can then be concluded that the people who work in these places have the highest tendency to be contaminated. However, they are not the only ones who should apply caution. Dentists and people who work in paint production are only a few more who have high exposure to the compound (Moienafshari, Bar-oz, and Koren, 1999).
Typical office personnel have a tendency to be exposed to mercury as well due to the abundance of items around the workplace that contain it. Although exposure is not as high, small amounts of mercury can be inhaled through time, this is called chronic exposure (Kotelchuck, 2002).
The thing to realize about work around mercury is not the actual presence of the compound but the spills and breakages that is caused by mishandling of items containing it. In fact, mercury is virtually a safe material to work with when rightfully managed. However, once released, regardless of the amount, may be very harmful to people and the environment. Clearing the contaminated area should be treated very seriously (Medical News Today, 2004).
Following is a table that shows the recommended airborne concentration of mercury as lifted from a study by Moienafshari, Bar-oz and Koren in 1999 on the safety levels of occupational exposure to the compound.
A. Signs of Contamination
A person who is contaminated by mercury may suffer from what is commonly called mercury poisoning. Mercury poisoning may be the result of either instant high exposure or chronic exposure to small amounts. As the table above would suggest, reaction to exposure to mercury usually occur when the amounts are above the safety levels.
Mercury poisoning is difficult to detect without actual testing, as the symptoms that a person exhibits are usually similar to other illnesses or diseases. The visual signs of mercury poisoning are headaches, nausea, and vomiting (New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services). The “Mad Hatter” phenomenon also showed many signs similar to some mental disorders like tremors, personality changes, mood swings and anxiety (Earth 911, 2007).
Mercury, once in a person’s system affects the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. It attacks three out of the five basic human senses; the sense of touch, the sense of taste and the sense of sight (Earth 911, 2007). The compound also manages to harm a person’s movement and most likely can lead to more unmanageable mental disabilities.
It is important therefore that upon fear of contamination tests be conducted. Many companies today work closely with industrial hygienists to measure presence of mercury in the workplace. At the same time closely monitoring employee behavior and physical state. Tests conducted to measure mercury present in the body involve urine, blood and hair (New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services).
B. Handling Contaminated Areas
As previously mentioned, mercury in the workplace is relatively safe unless mishandled or accidentally released from its airtight containers. When such an incident happen, it is best to isolate the area right away and call the proper authorities to report it (Blando, 2004). However when it is unlikely to isolate the area, there are helpful ways to properly dispose of the spills.
The best way to collect spills is to use an eyedropper or by scooping it with paper (Medical News Today, 2004). Never wipe off mercury spills. This will most likely spread it to a larger area. Mercury can easily seep into cracks and gaps and stay there for long periods of time undamaged. It is also most likely that wiping it off would only multiply the droplets (Olson, 2006) of the compound. Mercury easy divides, increasing the level of presence and contamination.
There are chemicals readily available recommended for cleaning mercury spills. In no instance should common household cleaners be used (Medical News Today, 2004). Some chemicals can react badly with mercury and thus increase the danger of its presence.
Finally when dealing with mercury spills it is important that protective gear should be worn. Gloves, goggles, cover for hair and shoes and even clothing should be properly put on to avoid contact (Blando, 2004). After disposing of mercury spills, a person is recommended to change clothes, shoes and when possible shower. This will help avoiding taking whatever residual presence of mercury home or anywhere else.
Many of the items that contain mercury are considered hazardous waste. Guidelines in disposing of hazardous wastes must always be strictly followed in handling these items. Some mercury-containing items are considered universal waste (Healthcare Environmental Resource Center), these universal wastes must be properly transported to appropriate recycling plants and waste centers.
IV. Effects of Mercury Spills in the Environment
People are not the only ones in danger when exposed to mercury. Waterways are likely to be highly contaminated as well. In fact, contamination of waterways essentially carries adverse effects to people through drinking water and other means (Moienafshari, Bar-oz, and Koren, 1999). Mercury in the atmosphere increases air pollution. Since in vapor state, spread is pretty much airborne, presence of this in the atmosphere increases the spread tenfold (Kotelchuck, 2002).
Industrial hygienists work very hard to contain the presence of mercury not only in the workplace but essentially in the atmosphere as well. In fact, many well-informed companies have periodic air testing, employee monitoring, and other check and balance measures to ensure the secured levels of mercury present (Healthcare Environmental Resource Center).
There is no question that mercury is probably the most useful common liquid metal around. However, its hazardous characteristics can no longer be denied. Its presence in the workplace is inevitable (Olson, 2006) the only way to deal with it is to know how to handle it properly. Mercury is relatively safe when managed. And the best way to know how to manage it is through proper training and education. Even regular office workers should be properly informed about this compound so that adverse events can be avoided.
On the other hand, if possible avoid the use of mercury altogether. Check labels and contents of items, particularly those that are to be used often. There are alternatives to mercury-containing items, it is just a matter of being well-informed about them.
Blando, J. (2004). Controlling metallic mercury exposure in the workplace: A guide for employers. New Jersey, New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
Earth 911 (2007). Mercury and the environment. Retrieved on March 13, 2008 from
Healthcare Environmental Resource Center. Mercury in healthcare facilities. Retrieved on
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Kotelchuck, D. (2002). Mercury: Workplace hazard. UE News.
Medical News Today (2004). The dangers of mercury to our health – Nevada, USA. Retrieved
on March 13, 2008 from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/5762.php
Moienafshari, R., Bar-oz, B., and Koren, G. (1999). Occupational exposure to mercury: what is a safe level. Canadian Family Physicians, 45, 43-45.
New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. (2008). Your mercury exposure. Retrieved on March 13, 2008 from http://www.state.nj.us/health.eoh/survweb/mercury.htm
Olson, D. (2006). Mercury. Emedicine for WebMD