Possible mercury leakage... What should I do?

I had a cheap thermometer (this one) in my bedroom. Somehow it got hidden in the folds of a sheet that I’d left crumpled on the floor. I don’t think I normally stepped on it, since it was clean.

When I retrieved the thermometer a while ago, I found that the tube inside was missing! I shook the sheet, and it somehow went flying behind a futon, where it got stuck between the pad and the wall until I let it fall to the floor. I retrieved it, then put it back into the casing.

Now, the thing still seems to work, as far as I can tell (i.e. the general temperature it shows is reasonable), but given that the tube and the casing got separated (and I have no idea how), I have to consider the possibility that there was a break, and mercury leakage.

How do I tell, and what do I do? Shaking out the sheet got me nowhere, but how would I even see it if it did? Wikipedia says that cloth stuff that got exposed should be thrown away. Should I be tossing my futon and sheets?

Possible factors I just thought of: I don’t know where in the pile of sheet (heh; just saw that as I typed it) the thermometer was, so I don’t know how much padding it had. I assume I would’ve felt, and thus remembered, it if I had stepped on it hard enough to break it, but who knows. Since it’s still cold outside, I’ve been sleeping with windows and door shut. I still have the thermometer rolled up in a plastic bag; anywhere I could get it checked for leakage? Ever since I found the thermometer, my lungs/breathing have felt a little weird - possibly psychosomatic. I have not yet washed my hands, and I’ve touched plenty of things since then, including, of course, this computer, so possible contamination has spread greatly. Oh, and the bedroom has carpet, so any mercury would now be practically invisible.

I’m screwed, aren’t I? :slight_smile:

That’s not mercury in there. Mercury is silver.

Uh, mercury is colored with dyes or whatever to be red (or whatever color) all the time for use in thermometers.


No, modern thermometers are filled with dyed alcohol or mineral spirits. You’re safe.



In an attempt to expiate my complete humiliation, I’d like to go back to a previous question: can’t mercury be dyed for thermometer (or whatever) use? Or is it always, always silver?

I sure don’t know, but Wikipedia has interesting stuff about it.

I hope your lungs are feeling better now!

I should probably let the chemists chime in, but no, mercury as it would be used in a thermometer can’t be dyed. It does have coloured compounds like cinnibar, but they aren’t liquid. As well, small amounts of elemental mercury (what is in a thermometer) while not good for you is not incredibly dangerous (unlike certain compounds like dimethylmercury which is extremely poisonous); I played with mercury when I was young and foolish. Fun stuff!

If you broke that thermometer, you’d notice a petrochemical odor strangely resembling Kiwi brand shoe polish. The red liquid stains well, also.

First of all, it’s not Mercury. Second of all, what’s in it didn’t leak out, because it still works. Third of all, if broken Mercury thermometers were a guaranteed death sentence, all of western humanity would be zombies. That’s not to say a very thorough cleanup with proper protocol wouldn’t be in order, but many mercury thermometers have been broken in the world with little effect.

thermometers, furnace thermostats, silent light switches… We use to play with mercury from broken stuff when we were kids.

Now if it was Dimethylmercury, holy cow, you’d be dead even if you wore latex gloves and a few drops spilled on you.

In my defense, I took my impression from the Wikipedia pages on mercury and mercury poisoning…

(God, what am I doing bumping this thread again?! :))

probably because if they spill any in a school they send in black helicopters and people wearing full body hazmat suits who treat it like it’s Chernobyl. Always better to ask about safety stuff. If you broke a can of zinc chromate primer You’d want to treat it with respect. Nothing like a warning that says this product WILL cause cancer. O K. think I’ll don some gloves and use it in a ventilated paint booth.

Yeah, my friend has an old-school mercury thermometer mounted on the wall in her house. It’s got the silvery stuff inside. Another friend of ours thought that the silver was just a reflection in the glass, and kept saying what a shame it was that it was empty, expecting to see red fluid. That’s even after the owning friend emphasized that no, it’s a mercury thermometer, and eventually had to point at the line and tell her outright that it wasn’t a reflection.

That being said, I did find a cup or so of mercury in a glass-stoppered container at my last workplace (a hospital). Someone had just tucked it away in a cabinet full of old medical journals and such. That did honestly qualify as a hazardous material, so someone came over from the appropriate department to take it away for disposal.

The hazard of elemental mercury is a bit of a mystery to me. I just saw a headline about a house in which a couple teaspoons of the stuff were spilled, which triggered a $50,000 cleanup project (which the homeowner’s insurance wasn’t going to cover).

But as a boy one of my favorite toys was a 5 lb bottle of mercury with which I’d fool around down in the basement. I’d heat it in a bent spoon over a Bunsen burner and mix it with molten solder to make what looked like silver toothpaste. If the solder was too hot when I poured the mercury in, it would suddenly boil and form a bluish cloud. Eventually the whole bottle was gone. When I think in today’s terms, I think this would have merited evacuating the neighborhood and encasing the house in cement. But AFAIK there were no ill effects, and that was 40+ years ago.

I guess the element was different back then…