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Chemical Spill Clean-up including Mercury Spills

There is no rule of thumb about who cleans up a spill, and some facilities may have very explicit regulations about chemical spill cleanup. If your practice has no guidelines, here are some suggestions you can use to decide whether your staff should clean up a spill or whether you should call an outside hazardous materials team:

Clean up the spill if:

  1. It does not involve an injury.
  2. It is not a fire or life safety hazard.
  3. It is less than one gallon.
  4. You are trained properly in spill cleanup procedures and you have the proper PPE.

Call a hazardous materials spill team to clean up the spill for all other chemical spill situations.

To prepare for chemical spill emergencies, post a telephone emergency sheet that includes the following information:

  1. Name and phone number of any on-site emergency personnel.
  2. Emergency telephone number (e.g., 911)
  3. Environment Health and Safety phone number (if applicable)

Based on the chemical spill situation, decide who will perform the cleanup. Then:

  1. Locate the spill kit.
  2. Wear appropriate gloves and goggles.
  3. If there is a chance of body contact, wear an apron or coveralls.
  4. If the spill is on the floor, wear protective boots or shoe covers.
  5. If there is an inhalation hazard, wear a respirator. (The person wearing the respirator must meet all the requirements in 29 CFR 1910.134.)
  6. Remove all ignition sources such as hot plates, stirring motors, and flame sources.
  7. Shut down all other equipment.

Confine or contain the spill:

  1. Cover with absorbent.
  2. Clean minor spills with paper towels.
  3. Sweep solid materials into a dustpan and place in a sealed container.
  4. In the case of an acid/base spill, first add a neutralizing agent.

Spills that require special handling include the following:

  1. Acid chlorides: Use Zorb-all, dry sand, or a similar absorbent. Avoid water and sodium bicarbonate.
  2. Mercury: Use a mercury spill kit*
  3. Alkali metals: Smother in dry sand, put in a hood, and if possible, dispose of by slow addition of isopropanol.
  4. White (yellow) phosphorus: Blanket with wet sand or wet absorbent.

After the absorption takes place, remove the absorbent material with a broom and dustpan, and place in a plastic bag or other appropriate container. If the spilled chemical is a volatile solvent, transfer the plastic bag to a fume hood for storage until the material can be picked up. If the material is a nonvolatile hazardous chemical, dispose of the material as hazardous chemical waste according to the local guidelines for hazardous waste in your community.

*Small Mercury Spill Clean-up Kit

  1. 4-5 ziplock-type bags
  2. trash bags (2 to 6 mils thick)
  3. rubber, nitrile or latex gloves
  4. paper towels
  5. cardboard or squeegee
  6. eyedropper
  7. duct tape, or shaving cream and small paint brush
  8. flashlight
  9. powdered sulfur (optional)

*Small Mercury Spill Cleanup Instructions

  1. Put on rubber, nitrile or latex gloves.
  2. If there are any broken pieces of glass or sharp objects, pick them up with care. Place all broken objects on a paper towel. Fold the paper towel and place in a zip lock bag. Secure the bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
  3. Locate visible mercury beads. Use a squeegee or cardboard to gather mercury beads. Use slow sweeping motions to keep mercury from becoming uncontrollable. Take a flashlight, hold it at a low angle close to the floor in a darkened room and look for additional glistening beads of mercury that may be sticking to the surface or in small cracked areas of the surface. Note: Mercury can move surprising distances on hard-flat surfaces, so be sure to inspect the entire room when "searching."
  4. Use the eyedropper to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully squeeze mercury onto a damp paper towel. Place the paper towel in a zip lock bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
  5. After you remove larger beads, put shaving cream on top of small paint brush and gently "dot" the affected area to pick up smaller hard-to-see beads. Alternatively, use duct tape to collect smaller hard-to-see beads. Place the paint brush or duct tape in a zip lock bag and secure. Make sure to label the bag as directed by your local health or fire department.
  6. OPTIONAL STEP: It is OPTIONAL to use commercially available powdered sulfur to absorb the beads that are too small to see. The sulfur does two things:

(1) it makes the mercury easier to see since there may be a color change from yellow to brown and

(2) it binds the mercury so that it can be easily removed and suppresses the vapor of any missing mercury.

Where to get commercialized sulfur? It may be supplied as mercury vapor absorbent in mercury spill kits, which can be purchased from laboratory, chemical supply and hazardous materials response supply manufacturers. Note: Powdered sulfur may stain fabrics a dark color. When using powdered sulfur, do not breathe in the powder as it can be moderately toxic. Additionally, users should read and understand product information before use.

  1. If you choose not to use this option, you may want to request the services of a contractor who has monitoring equipment to screen for mercury vapors. Consult your local environmental or health agency to inquire about contractors in your area. Place all materials used with the cleanup, including gloves, in a trash bag. Place all mercury beads and objects into the trash bag. Secure trash bag and label it as directed by your local health or fire department.
    1. Contact your local health department, municipal waste authority or your local fire department for proper disposal in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
    2. Remember to 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. If sickness occurs, seek medical attention immediately.

Recommendation: If there are young children or pregnant women in the house, seek additional advice from your local or state health or state environmental agency.

*What to NEVER Do After a Mercury Spill

* Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.

* Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.

* Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.

* 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. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded. By "direct contact," we mean that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing. For example:

(1) if you broke a mercury thermometer and some of elemental mercury beads came in contact with your clothing, or

(2) if you broke a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) so that broken glass and other material from the bulb, including mercury-containing powder, came into contact with your clothing.

You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, like the clothing you happened to be wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.

* Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.

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