Sentinel commentary - A way to keep everyone safe

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Taking a temperature of someone who is ill has changed for many of us who use digital thermometers.

There still are many households with the traditional mercury thermometers and occasionally they break.

Concern about exposure to mercury was heightened through recent news reports about an incident in Armstrong where more than a dozen people, including four children, were exposed to mercury.

The Iowa Department of Public Health has responded with a reminder about safe cleanup of even small amounts of mercury.

Here's the information:

Most of us are familiar with pure mercury -- a liquid metal, sometimes called 'quicksilver' that is traditionally used to make products like thermometers, switches, and some light bulbs.

Mercury cannot be destroyed, and because of potential health effects, breaking mercury products, spilling mercury, or improper treatment and disposal of products containing mercury can be a health hazard.

"Most people don't realize that there are specific ways to clean up even a small amount of mercury, like that from a broken thermometer," said Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) Toxicologist Stuart Schmitz. "When metallic mercury is exposed to the air, especially in warm or poorly-ventilated indoor spaces, it can be breathed in as a vapor where it can be absorbed by the lungs."

Even a small mercury spill, like that from a broken thermometer, requires health precautions be taken:

*Have everyone else leave the area; don't let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out and make sure pets are removed from the area.

*Do not allow children to help clean up the spill.

*Put on rubber, nitrile, or latex gloves to clean the spill.

*Use an eyedropper to collect or draw up the mercury beads. Slowly and carefully squeeze mercury on to a damp paper towel. Place the paper towel in a zip lock plastic bag and secure.

For more information on cleaning up a small mercury spill, visit www.iowapoison.com/iapoison/pdfs/IA_MercuryCleanUp.pdf.