Mercury in the Laboratory-Environmental Health & Safety - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mercury in the Laboratory

We are all aware that mercury is a very hazardous material, both to our health and to the environment.  As a result, we strongly encourage our lab personnel to remove any unneeded mercury-containing items and to dispose of them through the hazardous waste pick-up program. 

Elemental mercury can be found in many thermometers, gauges, barometers and u-tubes.  Non-mercury alternatives are widely available for all of these items and will satisfy accuracy requirements in nearly all situations.  mercuryFor mercury compounds, there are also alternatives available.  Copper catalysts for mercury (II) oxide, magnesium chloride, sulfuric acid or zinc formalin for mercury (II) chloride, ammonia or copper sulfate for mercury nitrate (for anti-corrosion or anti-fungal applications.)  While these alternatives have their risks, they are less than those posed by the mercury.  Be aware that mercury-containing materials were widely used in the preservation of many reagents and also of animal and plant specimens.

All laboratories were elemental mercury is still present MUST have a mercury spill response kit available and lab personnel must be able to properly use it in the event of a spill.  Commercial kits are widely available; follow the instructions that come with the kit.  In addition it is important to do the following when cleaning up a mercury spill:

  • Keep people out of the area
  • Wear hand protection (gloves)
  • Ventilate the area of the spill
  • Place contaminated material in non-breakable containers
  • If the spill is in or near a sink or drain, immediately take steps of prevent the mercury from entering it

Additionally, labs where mercury is present MUST take steps to prevent damage to the material.  The most common problem is where many mercury-containing thermometers are tossed into a drawer, inviting breakage.

If you have any questions about safe handling or use of mercury, or of the selection of safer items to replace mercury materials, please contact me at

By: Mark Banister,, 412-268-1493