A young Utah child was hospitalized because of mercury poisoning, prompting an urgent warning by health officials about properly storing and disposing of household items that contain mercury.

Items containing metallic mercury, the most dangerous form of mercury, include mercury thermometers, thermostats, fluorescent light bulbs, barometers and some blood pressure devices.

Mercury can be swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through skin. It's particularly dangerous for a fetus or young child because it can interrupt development.

Effects vary. The brain and kidneys or a developing fetus can suffer permanent damage after exposure to large amounts of the poison over a period of time. Some people may experience irritability, tremors, hearing and vision changes and memory loss.

When mercury is inhaled, acute health effects include lung problems, a cough, chest tightness, trouble breathing and even respiratory failure, said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical officer for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. When mercury is swallowed, it can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even kidney failure. Short-term effects can also include blood pressure increases, faster heartbeat, skin rashes and eye irritation.

In the case of the unidentified Salt Lake County child who was hospitalized, mercury was spilled and then vacuumed up, which is extremely dangerous because the mercury is vaporized by the vacuum and can be inhaled.

Metallic mercury is a liquid at room temperature. When it evaporates, it forms colorless, odorless vapor. The hotter it gets, the more vapors are released from liquid metallic mercury and just a few drops in the air can raise concentrations to levels that can be harmful, according to Royal DeLegge, director of Environmental Health at the health department.

Metallic mercury or its vapor can cling to anything, including clothing, furniture, carpet, drapes, walls and floors. It's hard to clean up and residue can stay for months and even years.

Pam Davenport, health department spokeswoman, urges residents get rid of anything that contains metallic mercury, but to do it right. It can be taken to the Salt Lake Valley Solid Waste facility at 6030 W. 1300 South or the Trans Jordan Cities Landfill, 10873 S. 7200 West, South Jordan, both open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It's safe to clean up mercury spills smaller than a quarter if it's done right, according to the health department. Collect the mercury and the items it contaminated in a leak-tight plastic bag or sealable plastic container and take it to one of the recycling centers. After you've gathered up all of it (and don't forget it forms little tiny beads that can escape), sprinkle sulfur powder on the spill area. If it changes from yellow to brown, you've still got some cleaning to do.

Then sprinkle zinc or copper flakes (you can get them at hardware stores) to get any remaining mercury to clump together.

Wash your hands or shower, depending on your exposure. Air out the room with air from outdoors for a couple of days. And properly dispose of the mercury.

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If your spill is bigger than a quarter, get professional help. Keep others away from the area and make sure that air in that room isn't flowing to other parts of the building. Ventilate the area with outside air.

Never, ever use household cleaning products, especially those with ammonia or chlorine. Don't use a broom or paint brush to clean up, since it will break the mercury into smaller beads and spread them around. Don't pour it down a drain and don't let those whose clothing or shoes may have been contaminated walk around or leave the spill area until the items have been removed.

For more information on household hazardous waste and its disposal, call the health department at 801-313-6745.


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