In our latest blog post we cover the procedures that need to be taken into consideration for a major mercury spillage. It’s imperative that we make clear from the beginning, that these procedures need to be implemented by trained professionals.

This post is intended to provide the reader with insight into how specialist cleaning companies approach large scale mercury removal and decontamination scenarios.

If you’re a member of the public and are not professionally trained to safely and effectively remove mercury, please do not attempt to carry out any parts of this procedure yourself.

What is mercury and how to identify it?

Mercury, formerly named hydrargyrum, is a chemical element (symbol Hg). It’s a heavy metal chemical and is one of only two liquid metals on the periodic table that is a liquid at room temperature (the other is halogen bromine). Due to its fast movement, mercury is also referred to as quicksilver.

If you happen to have an old thermometer in your home or an old barometer at your place of work, these are common instruments that are known to contain mercury. However, you may be surprised at how many everyday instruments, devices and appliances that actually contain and utilise mercury e.g. home appliances such as washing machines and dryers, some automotive parts such as sensors for airbags and seatbelts and even LCD screens and monitors.

Mercury is identifiable by its shiny silver surface and liquid form. However, liquid mercury can turn into vapour/gas which is unidentifiable to the naked eye. Specialist cleaning companies invest in equipment, a Mercury Vapour Indicator (MVI), that allows them to detect the levels of mercury contamination in the air.

It’s worth noting that there are other soft metals such as gallium which can be mistaken for mercury. If you experience a spill and are unsure of the substance, contact the experts who have the specialist equipment to safely identify a substance.

major mercury spill on soil
Large mercury spill incident on soil

How does mercury affect the human body?

Mercury (in liquid metal form) can instantly be absorbed into the skin just by touch. If mercury is exposed or released from containers, it can disperse metal into the air very quickly. Mercury can stick to clothing, be absorbed by touch or inhaled.

If you happen to accidentally touch mercury, it can cause irritation to the skin and in some cases result in a chemical burn.

If a person is exposed to high levels of mercury, it can result in mercury poisoning which in turn can affect the heart, kidneys, lungs and brain. Mercury poisoning can also adversely affect the human body’s immune system.

Factors such as how a person has been exposed to mercury and the duration of the exposure, will influence the severity and type of symptoms that a person experiences.

If you are faced with a major mercury spillage (mercury spills that are over 10 grams), it’s important to react as quickly as possible. Personal health and safety and the health and safety of others should take precedence. Call a specialist cleaning company that is accredited and has experience with mercury removal and decontamination.

Ideal Response provides a rapid, emergency response service for major mercury spills and can be on-site within 2 hours of receiving your call.

Buildings or industries that contain large amounts of mercury

We’ve compiled a short list of buildings and industries that use instruments or equipment that contain large amounts of mercury. They include, but are not limited to:

Museums – Ancient biofacts such as bones can produce tiny droplets of mercury (vapour) which, when breathed in become poisonous. If these biofacts are not contained correctly, it can result in the surrounding area becoming contaminated.

Lighthouses – It’s very common for large lighthouses to use Fresnel lenses, which utilise mercury baths as a low-friction rotation mechanism. These mercury baths can suffer damage overtime and subsequently can release mercury, causing contamination to the lighthouse.

Dental Surgeries – Almost 50% of dental amalgam is made of liquid mercury, the other half is powdered alloy of silver, tin, and copper. Due to the volume of dental amalgam used, it’s not uncommon for accidents and contamination to occur.

Hospitals – There’s a variety of instruments and equipment used within hospitals that contain liquid mercury. Instruments are accidentally broken or equipment malfunctions, causing mercury to escape, resulting in contamination.

Large-scale mercury spill procedure

There are four key components to a large-scale mercury spill procedure. They include:

  • The health and safety of the public and technicians working on the job.
  • The enabling of work to commence, which consists of access procedures, containment, removal and contamination migration.
  • The process of decontamination.
  • The reporting of results which includes certifications.

Let’s delve deeper into each component of the procedure.

Health and safety

The health and safety of the public, technicians and other site operatives should be the number one priority of any specialist cleaning company.

If you’re the customer, ensure that you receive and review the risk assessments and safety procedures outlined by the company responsible for carrying out the works. The risk assessment is is often abbreviated to RAMS, which is short for ‘Risk Assessment and Method Statement’.

At Ideal Response, it’s our obligation to ensure the health and safety of any individual accessing the affected environment.

Enabling Works

Enabling works effectively means preparing a site for work to be carried out. At Ideal Response, we take the following into consideration:

Access and egress – An assessment will be carried out to mitigate any identified risks and safety hazards to the location in question. The environment needs to be made safe and part of that process is ensuring there is proper access and egress. Appropriate signage and cordons (if necessary) need to be setup to protect the public.

Containment – The affected area or areas need to be contained to prevent contamination spreading to other areas of the building. In order to achieve this, our team of technicians construct an abatement enclosure around the affected area. This greatly reduces the chances of cross contamination.

Positive air pressure – To safely remove any mercury vapours from the air, our technicians implement and use positive pressure systems to remove contaminated air, which is then replaced with clean air.

Removal and contamination migration – Following an incident that involves mercury, it’s sometimes necessary to remove floor coverings to access other areas that need to be investigated. The safe disposal of these materials need to be factored into the process.

Example of decontamination process

  • Technicians to attend site induction (if required) and permits obtained (if required) prior to work commencing.
  • Establish where clean and dirty areas are. The clean area is for technicians to put their personal protective equipment (PPE) on. The dirty area is for the technicians to remove their PPE.
  • Technicians must wear the required PPE prior to entering the work area.
  • Ensure contaminated area is isolated from any supplies used.
  • Implement exhaust ventilation system to safely remove mercury vapours within the contaminated area.
  • Depending on environment, setup exclusion zone to prevent any unauthorised entry.
  • Setup the mercury monitor within the work area.
  • Using a puffer ball, safely remove mercury from contaminated surfaces.
  • Decant mercury into mercury container from puffer ball.
  • Containers to be sealed, ready for safe transport.
  • Amalgam collection kits can be used to remove any remaining traces of mercury within affected work area. A scoop can also be used to collect any mercury globules together so that they merge into larger globules, making them easier to collect.
  • Carefully tip out the calcium hydroxide and sulphur to the area of the spillage.
  • Surrounding areas to where the contamination took place to be decontaminated.
  • Install mercury spill kit for any potential future mercury spills.

Post completion results and certification

A customer should expect to see a completion of works report, preferably accompanied by before and after MVI readings. At Ideal Response, we provide an MVI Certification and a Hygiene Certificate, on completion of the work.

Have you experienced a mercury spill?

Speak to a member of the Ideal Response team today and receive a free, no obligation quote. Get back up and running fast.

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