Dear Angie: What should you do if mercury spills on your carpet? — Sharon H., Glendale, Calif.
Dear Sharon: I never recommend crying over spilled milk or most anything else, but an accident involving mercury merits immediate attention.
A mercury spill is a rare thing, but it's always possible because the toxic heavy metal can be found in such household items as thermometers, thermostats, clocks, barometers, CFL bulbs and light fixtures.
If such an object breaks and spills what that appears to be mercury, there are EPA-directed steps you can take to dispose of the material, as long as the amount is no more than would be in a thermometer. The details for how to do that are on the Environmental Protection Agency's website, at 1.usa.gov/1kHsg6F.
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The EPA says it's important not to vacuum mercury; doing so may allow particles to become airborne. The EPA also recommends cutting out and properly disposing of any section of carpet that comes in contact with mercury. Clothing that comes into contact should also be disposed.
If you're not comfortable handling mercury, or if the spilled amount is sizable, call a professional, such as a biohazard or environmental services company. Be aware that a spill of a pound or more of mercury must be reported to the EPA's National Response Center.
Highly rated carpet cleaners tell my research team that many cleaners aren't qualified to handle a toxic material such as mercury. Special care is necessary, since mercury vapor can cause respiratory and nervous system damage, among other health effects, especially in the case of children and pregnant women.
When checking out biohazard or environmental services professionals, ask if they have experience with mercury or whatever substance you need help with. Ask, too, about their process and confirm their credentials. Find out if they use a mercury vapor analyzer, which can detect trace amounts of mercury.