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Mercury in necklaces

School Health Alert About Mercury in Necklaces

Necklaces from Mexico containing metallic mercury are showing up in schools. Unaware of the hazards, students bring the fragile glass pendant necklaces to school. Broken necklaces have resulted in mercury spills. Once broken, the spilled mercury warrants an evacuation and a hazardous material cleanup response. Whether at school or home, mercury spills of any kind or size pose a serious health risk.

What do the necklaces look like?

The necklaces are often a beaded chain, cord, or leather strand with a glass pendant that contains mercury. The mercury appears as a silvery clump of liquid that rolls around in the hollow glass pendant. The glass pendant may also be filled with brightly colored liquid - red, green, blue, yellow - along with the mercury. Pendants can be in various shapes, such as hearts, bottles, saber teeth and chili peppers.

What is the concern?

Metallic (liquid) mercury is released when the glass is broken or when it leaks around the pendant's cord anchor. Once mercury spills, it breaks into tiny beads that can roll into cracks in floors or walls, or become trapped in carpet. Mercury vaporizes rapidly at room temperature, and can rapidly spread throughout the room. If spilled in or near heating ducts, the vapor can rapidly spread throughout the home or building. Without proper cleanup, people may be exposed to hazardous levels of mercury vapors.

How do mercury vapors affect my health? 

Vapor from spilled metallic mercury is highly toxic. The amount of mercury in these necklaces (just a few drops) can vaporize and reach levels that may be very harmful to health. Young children, developing fetuses, and people with kidney disease or other health conditions are especially vulnerable. Brief contact with mercury can cause harm before symptoms arise. When mercury vapors are inhaled, mercury enters the bloodstream through the lungs. Inhalation of vapors may cause shortness of breath, chest pain and tightness, coughing, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, eye irritation and increase in blood pressure or heart rate. The central nervous system and kidneys are especially sensitive to the effects of mercury. Exposure may lead to behavior changes (irritability, nervousness), tremors, impaired vision or hearing, memory problems. High exposures can result in permanent brain or kidney damage. The severity of harm depends on the level of mercury vapors, the duration of exposure, and individual sensitivity. Mercury can also be absorbed by skin contact.

How can a mercury spill from a broken necklace be prevented?
  • Inform students and parents about the health hazards associated with these necklaces, and that mercury necklaces are not to be brought to school. Unbroken necklaces, thermometers or other objects containing mercury should be discarded by sealing in hard plastic containers and taken to a household hazardous waste collection center.
How can schools prepare for a spill response? 

  • Designate a professional spill cleanup firm to respond, or
  • Assign a competent, trained staff person to be immediately notified in case of a spill. Designated staff need to be trained in the appropriate use of a mercury spill kit, cleanup procedures, required personal protective clothing, decontamination and disposal. Schools need to follow the Hazard Communication Standard guidelines in setting up a spill response plan for small spills. For questions concerning the Hazard Communication Standard, contact Oregon OSHA, telephone 1-800-922-2689.
  • Obtain mercury spill cleanup kits from a safety supplier or analytical laboratory.
  • Establish emergency plans for small spills (less than 2 tablespoons), and for large spills (more than 2 tablespoons or one pound). Get professional spill response help for large spills, or if mercury contaminates carpeting or porous flooring. (See yellow pages under Environmental Services for a list of contractors providing 24 hour spill response).
  • Substitute unnecessary use of metallic mercury (such as in thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, mercury switches, barometers, or portable blood pressure gauges).
Who do I contact for assistance for a small mercury spill (less than 2 tablespoons)?
Commercial spill response firm or a designated competent person
Public Safety Answering Center/local fire dept. 911
Who do I contact for assistance for a large mercury spill (more than 2 tablespoons)? 

Commercial spill response firm
Oregon Emergency Response System (OERS) 1-800-452-0311
National Response Center (NRC) 1-800-424-8802
What do I do if a small spill occurs (a necklace or thermometer breakage)? 

School Staff:

  • REMOVE everyone from the spill area. Before people leave, be sure their shoes, clothing and other articles have not been splashed with mercury. Leave any contaminated shoes, clothing and broken materials with the spill.
  • WASH any mercury-contaminated skin thoroughly with soap and water.
  • LOWER the temperature in the room by turning down the thermostat. TURN OFF central heating or cooling systems. If possible, temporarily seal heating and air-conditioning ducts.
  • CLOSE all doors, windows, ducts or passageways leading to other rooms.
  • VENTILATE the affected room(s) by opening all windows and doors opening to the outside.
  • SECURE the area - only those people designated to cleanup should enter.

Designated Cleanup Person:

  • AVOID SKIN CONTACT. Remove rings, watches or other jewelry that might contact and bind with the mercury. Wear nitrile gloves and eye protection.
  • CLEANUP with a mercury spill kit, following instructions. Apply the kit's reactant material (such as powdered sodium sulfide), before disturbing the spill. Sprinkling fine powdered sodium sulfide can help bind mercury droplets to prevent spreading. DO NOT sweep with a broom. DO NOT use a vacuum cleaner. Mercury beads can also be picked up using sticky tape; OR suck up mercury beads with an eye dropper; OR use a rigid sheet of paper to carefully roll the beads onto another piece of paper. Use a bright flashlight to detect any missed mercury.
  • CAREFULLY transfer mercury droplets into an unbreakable small plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, then place into a secondary container, such as a zip-lock plastic bag to insure no droplets or vapor escapes. LABEL the bag "Metallic Mercury Waste - Hazardous" and store in a secure place for disposal. Put all broken pieces of necklace or thermometer in a plastic container with lid. Put all contaminated items, including cleaning supplies, and gloves into a plastic bag, seal and label.
  • DISPOSAL: Put all contaminated cleaning supplies and gloves into a plastic bag, seal and label bag. Take the mercury and contaminated cleanup materials to a hazardous waste collection center that accepts mercury. If you need information about disposal, contact your County Solid Waste company (in blue pages in telephone book), or call the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), telephone 1-800-RECYCLE (732-9253).
  • DO NOT sweep a mercury spill with a broom; it will scatter the droplets.
  • DO NOT vacuum a mercury spill. Vacuuming will rapidly spread mercury vapors into the air, increase the exposure, and will contaminate the vacuum.
  • DO NOT use household cleaning products to clean up a spill. These products may contain bleach or ammonia which can react violently with mercury, releasing toxic gases.
What do I do for large spills?

Immediately evacuate affected rooms. Open windows and doors leading to the outside. Close interior doors to other rooms. Lower the temperature. Turn off heating and air conditioning. Call for assistance. Keep the area secured until help arrives. Get professional help for cleanup.

Additional Information

US Environmental Protection Agency Mercury Website offers a variety of informative materials on mercury including Mercury - Emergency Spill & Release Facts. This particular fact sheet covers precautions you can take in the event of either a small or large mercury spill. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency's Kids Mercury Fact Sheet has great information for older children and teenagers about mercury in the environment and what to do if mercury spills.

US Public Health Service - Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's ToxFAQs - Mercury is a fact sheet on the most frequently asked health questions about mercury.

Department of Human Services
Oregon Health Services
Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology
Portland, Oregon 97232
503) 731-4025