Following the breakage of a pendulum in a grandfather clock, a concerned customer called Ideal Response for some reassurance after attempting a clean-up themselves. After this call, we wanted to share with you the potential of mercury in antiques and what you should do in the case of a spill, and what to avoid. Remember, you can call us anytime for help and advice.

Most people have heard of mercury poisoning, even if they do not quite understand the effects and risks. Most people are also aware that mercury can be found in some household items such as thermometers and old style bulbs.

But would it surprise you to learn that mercury can also be found in the antique favourite, grandfather clocks? The clock’s famous pendulum can contain a significantly higher amount of the liquid metal than other household items.

The pendulum, used as a weight that swings at precisely timed intervals to keep the clock face accurate, can contain up to one litre of mercury (note: just a few drops can raise indoor air concentrations of mercury to levels that may be harmful to health). Many of the clocks produced in the early to mid 17th Century used mercury as the choice for weighting the pendulum, long before its risks and hazards were known.

It’s not just antique clocks that pose a risk either. Antique barometers can also contain large amounts of liquid mercury. The range can vary from anywhere from five ounces to six pounds. Because of the risk, certain mercury containing antiques have been banned from sale in various US states, although they escaped the EU ban which focused on newly made instruments instead.

Most mercury containing antiques do not pose an immediate risk of exposure, provided that they are sealed and handled correctly. Over time, the seals can deteriorate, causing the mercury to leak. Extreme care should also be taken when moving items known to contain mercury as dropping them or knocking them over could cause damage, allowing the mercury to spill or leak.

What should I do if I experience a mercury spill or leak?

If you experience a mercury spill that is more than two tablespoons worth (because mercury is heavy, two tablespoons weigh about one pound), it is recommended that you call in a professional company who can deal with hazardous spills. If you’re unsure, or need some advice or reassurance, always call the professionals, no matter the scale.

Whether you’re waiting for the help of a professional or are attempting to clean up the spill yourself, the following advice is given to help ensure the utmost safety of you and those within the vicinity.

Ventilate the area

Open windows wherever possible to increase the amount of ventilation going through the room. However, close all internal doors and avoid opening any as this could allow the mercury to travel to other areas. Keep the area well ventilated for at least two hours after a successful clean up.

Wear gloves and a change of clothes

Never touch mercury with bare hands; it is easily absorbed by skin, hair and nails. If you are going to attempt to clean up the mercury spill yourself, put on old clothes or overalls which you do not mind throwing away afterwards. Any and all contaminated materials will need disposing of.

Collect the mercury beads

Try to collect the mercury beads using cardboard or a sheet of plastic. You want to be able to keep control of the material and touch the beads without the risk of releasing them into the air or breaking them down into smaller beads like a brush would do.

Wipe any affected areas with a damp cloth

When cleaning after a mercury spill, you want to avoid creating any dust. Using a damp cloth will collect any dust rather than release it into the air.

Interesting fact: Mercury beads are reflective; use a torch to help you spot any missed beads.

What should I avoid doing if I experience a mercury spill or leak?

Should you experience a mercury spill or leak, there are several things you should avoid doing. Follow the advice below to ensure the safety of you and others within the building, and to also help reduce the complexity of the clean up process and therefore help keep costs down.

Do not use a vacuum to clean up the mercury

Using a vacuum to clean up mercury will only make the situation more hazardous. It will increase exposure by putting mercury into the air. Not only is this far more dangerous to your health and the health of others in the building, it makes the cleanup and decontamination process more complex, which could result in increased costs.

Do not attempt to sweep up the mercury

Using a broom to sweep up mercury risks breaking the mercury into smaller drops and spreading them even further – something which should be avoided.

Do not touch the mercury with bare hands

Mercury easily and quickly absorbs into skin and is also absorbed by hair and nails. Always use gloves when handling the shiny silver metal.

Do not put any contaminated materials into normal waste

Any contaminated materials, including cloths used to clean up the spill and contaminated clothing, should be put into a separate waste bag and disposed of at specified locations as advised by the local council, or by licensed waste carriers.

Do not put any mercury down the drain

Mercury can clog the drain and cause other plumbing issues further down the line. It also has the potential to contaminate sewage.

What are the dangers of exposure to mercury?

If you inhale mercury vapour, you are at risk of harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems. Damage to lungs and kidneys can develop and in some cases, it can even prove fatal.

Mercury can also be corrosive to skin, eyes and the gastrointestinal tract, and can even induce kidney toxicity if ingested. After inhalation, ingestion or direct skin contact, neurological and behavioural disorders may present.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning

While small amounts of mercury are considered almost non-toxic, problems can arise, especially if you have inhaled it. If you are worried that you, or anyone you know has been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury, seek medical advice from your GP.

Some of the common symptoms of mercury poisoning include:

  • a cough
  • breathlessness
  • chest pains, a tight chest or a burning feeling in your chest
  • feeling irritable and nervous
  • shaking (tremor)
  • coughing up blood
  • breathing difficulties

IMPORTANT: If you experience any of the above symptoms after exposure to mercury, we strongly advise you to seek medical attention immediately.