Luck, Love, Money and Mercury

19 Apr

I went to a lecture in Ford Hall about Mercury as an Indoor Air Pollutant as part of the Mercury, The Environment, and Public health lecture series. The speaker was Donna Riley, Associate Professor of Engineering. It was really interesting to learn about how mercury is used in different ways. I wasn’t expecting the lecture to have so much basis in anthropological research. Mercury is an important element for many different cultures who use it in various ways. For me, mercury is an interesting substance because it is encased in many household products that I come in contact with on a daily basis although I never see the silver liquid. In this lecture Professor Riley talked about people who practice a religion called Santeria. They use mercury as part of their religious practices.

Mercury has a long history of being used as a medicine by ancient Egyptians and Chinese. In Europe, medieval alchemists tried turning it into gold. It was even used to treat Syphilis before penicillin was discovered.

In Santeria mercury can be used spiritually in icons and amulets. It is thought to spiritually clean and purify and ward off evil. It has the power to bring luck, love and money and is therefore used in people’s homes.

Too bad mercury doesn’t just bring luck, love and good fortune – it’s also toxic.  Mercury can volatilize and contaminate the air. That’s why if you ever break a thermometer or CFC light bulb you shouldn’t vacuum or try to sweep it up. Americans spend 90% of their time indoors and buildings can concentrate air pollutants so mercury poisoning can be a real concern. As with many pollutants, it becomes a matter of environmental justice because certain groups of people are being exposed to mercury more than others.

Professor Riley researched the effects of religious practices using mercury and indoor air quality. She said that most of the practitioners of Santeria use mercury in closed containers along with other items but there is popular literature saying that people sprinkle mercury in their homes. She would like to find out what the risk of these practices is. There may need to be more education for all consumers who come into contact with mercury whether in light bulbs or religious ceremonies.

What to Do if a Mercury Thermometer Breaks (from the EPA website)

  • Have everyone else leave the area; don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out. Make sure all pets are removed from the area. Open all windows and doors to the outside; shut all doors to other parts of the house.
  • DO NOT allow children to help you clean up the spill.
  • Mercury can be cleaned up easily from the following surfaces: wood, linoleum, tile and any similarly smooth surfaces.
  • If a spill occurs on carpet, curtains, upholstery or other absorbent surfaces, these contaminated items should be thrown away in accordance with the disposal means outlined below. Only cut and remove the affected portion of the contaminated carpet for disposal.
Items needed to clean up a small mercury spill

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

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. 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.

The next lecture about mercury in this series is coming up,

Every Cloud Has a Quicksilver Lining
April 20, 2012
Part of the Mercury, The Environment, and Public health lecture series. The Transport, Bioavailability and Effects of Mercury in the Environment Charles T. Driscoll Jr., Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University preceded by light refreshments and followed by dinner for attendees. This lecture series is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Ford hall 240
4:30 pm

Hester Garskovas ’12, Environmental Science and Policy Program Intern

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