Mercury (Hg) commonly appears on UW System campuses for two primary uses: as a stock chemical in laboratories for instruction and research purposes; or as part of a device or piece of equipment, such as manometers, fluorescent lamps, thermostats and electrical switches. Standard health and safety information is available from many sources, and this guidance concentrates on the aspects of mercury and associated hazards frequently encountered at UW System campuses.
General regulatory overview
At the federal level, the US EPA regulates environmental releases and certain uses of mercury under a number of laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA), among others. These regulations are administered at the state level by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
In addition, Wisconsin Act 44 bans K-12 schools from purchasing any equipment or materials that contain mercury, storing mercury anywhere in the building and requires these schools to remove all traces of mercury from science labs, equipment and machinery. While these provisions do not apply to Wisconsin colleges and universities, the second section of Wisconsin Act 44 does apply and regulates mercury sales for all state citizens. Mercury salts and other compounds are not banned for sale to a University of Wisconsin campus under Act 44, and there are provisions for requesting exemptions. The Wisconsin DNR provides further information on their Mercury Products Ban webpage.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) also provides information and resources on mercury exposure, spill and disposal topics on the Wisconsin DHS Mercury in our Environment webpage.
Mercury spills rarely present an imminent health hazard, unless the spill occurs in an area with very poor ventilation. The main exposure route for mercury is via vapor inhalation. If metallic mercury is not cleaned up adequately, tiny droplets remaining in surface cracks and crevices may yield toxic vapors for years.
Mercury can spread easily if the spill is walked on. It will adhere to footwear and can be deposited in smaller amounts over a much larger area. This can lead to a much costlier cleanup, temporary closure of affected areas and disruption of operations. Therefore, it is critical that when a mercury spill occurs, the spill area is first cordoned off to prevent people from inadvertently tracking the contamination.
A special mercury vacuum cleaner generally provides the best method for mercury spill cleanups. Do not use a regular vacuum cleaner; it will disperse toxic vapors into the air, contaminate the vacuum cleaner and potentially cause a much greater health hazard. If a special mercury vacuum is not available, first use an appropriate suction device to collect big droplets, then use a special absorbent (available from most laboratory supply vendors) to amalgamate smaller mercury droplets.
The Wisconsin DHS provides additional guidance for handling small and large spills, broken thermometers, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and other mercury spill resources on the Wisconsin DHS Mercury Spill Response webpage. The Wisconsin DNR also provides information on responding to and reporting mercury spills on the Wisconsin DNR Mercury Spills and Cleanup webpage.
Mercury & mercury-Contaminated material Disposal
Fluorescent lamps and mercury thermostats can be managed as and disposed of under the universal waste regulations. UW System campuses must dispose of these materials through the mandatory State of Wisconsin Contract for Hazardous Waste Services. Elemental mercury, free-flowing mercury from broken items, mercury-contaminated material and mercury spill cleanup materials must be managed as hazardous waste and disposed of through the mandatory State of Wisconsin Contract for Hazardous Waste Services.
- Wisconsin DNR Mercury Information
- Wisconsin DHS Mercury Information
- US EPA Mercury Information
- OSHA Safety and Health Topics: Mercury
- American Chemical Society (ACS) Guide for Chemical Spill Response Planning in Laboratories
- UW-Madison Laboratory Safety Guide: Chapter 5.7 Mercury Spills
This publication was prepared for environmental, health and safety staff at University of Wisconsin System campuses, to assist in finding resources and information for regulatory compliance. It is not intended to render legal advice.