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How to Clean up a Broken Thermometer

Jason was sick this weekend, and while he was shaking down the thermometer, it slipped out of his hand, flew across the room, and broke into a zillion pieces—or so I thought. It was actually four pieces of glass and a zillion tiny beads of mercury.

I had no idea how to clean up a broken thermometer; I just knew that mercury was hazardous. So I immediately went to the EPA website, and what I found out was terrifying. Here are some of their directions for cleanup:

  • “Have everyone else leave the area…. Open all windows and doors to the outside; shut all doors to other parts of the house.”
  • “If a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away.”
  • “Keep the area well ventilated to the outside (i.e., windows open and fans in exterior windows running) for at least 24 hours after your successful cleanup. Continue to keep pets and children out of cleanup area.”
  • “Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.”
  • “Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.”

Follow the link above for full instructions. But you get the drift: we had to throw away our area rug, take a couple hours tracking down every single bead of mercury with tape, and spend a day in the bedroom with the cats while the living room aired out. And I’m still not entirely sure that we got it all.

Our new digital thermometer. It takes just 10 seconds to register. And no mercury!

I know, I know, who has a mercury thermometer anymore anyway? We got ours a good 12 years ago, before we knew there was anything wrong with them. And if I’d known cleanup would be this much of a hassle, I would have recycled it long ago, while it  was still whole.

I think we’ll have to drop off the mercury-tainted trash at the Recycling Drop-Off Center the next time it’s open. But just to be sure I’ve emailed the DPW to ask. I’ll keep you posted.


Comment from brian
Time February 9, 2010 at 1:12 am

This scares me. When I was 6 or 7 I blew one of these up trying to play hookie by putting over the steam of a kettle while our mom was making soup. I think she served the soup too. Not good. Old thermostats contain maybe ten times as much as one of those little thermometers, nasty stuff.

Comment from nicole
Time February 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm

wow i didnt know how much work it is to clean up one of those thermometers, so glad we have one of the digital ones!

Pingback from Carnival of the Green # 214! at EcoStreet – A walk down EcoStreet is a step in the green direction.
Time February 18, 2010 at 7:07 am

[…] and mercury all over the place, she turned to the EPA for advice on how to clean it up safely. Here’s how. We know plastic bags are not so great for the environment. But did you know the plastic clips on […]

Pingback from Friday Green Links – 2/19 « Pragmatic Environmentalism
Time February 19, 2010 at 9:59 pm

[…] my How to Clean Up a Broken Thermometer post was featured in the Carnival of the Green over at Eco Street. As always, if you see anything […]

Pingback from B1 with Earth » Blog Archive » News: Carnival of the Green # 214!
Time May 8, 2010 at 10:53 pm

[…] and mercury all over the place, she turned to the EPA for advice on how to clean it up safely.Here’s how.We know plastic bags are not so great for the environment. But did you know the plastic clips on […]

Comment from Seane
Time October 21, 2010 at 4:14 am

Gee! I had know idea , but of course mercury is dangerous. Any wonder my family used to keep the thermometer out of small hands. Now it makes sense. I sometime wish explainations were provided to why young people should not play with certain objects. Had I known this I would have been more knowledgeable, but thanks for the guide as I have learned something new today.

Comment from Lpg Gas Suppliers
Time November 23, 2010 at 2:41 am

Wow! It is interesting! I always knew that mercury was dangerous, but did not believe that such a small amount could do so much damage. Phew and I thought that home thermometer was a blessing. It surprises me to hear that we still produce them when clearly a digital alternative is much safer and probably more reliable.

Comment from John
Time January 12, 2012 at 2:19 am

First thing that people should know when they have a broken mercury thermometer is not to attempt to repair it or touch the mercury. Follow the steps in removing the hazardous material and air the room. Still, it was quite surprising to find someone still using a mercury thermometer.

Comment from Sarah Carmicheal
Time April 2, 2012 at 2:47 am

I think it is important to not throw mercury thermometers into the trash. There should be a better waste management system for dangerous substances like that. But you did the right thing in cleaning up the broken thermometer, I will give you that.

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