The case of a tipped-over clock has put the spotlight on the dangers of mercury-containing antiques, health experts say.
Many such items of years gone by - including barometers, thermometers, lamps, clocks and mirrors - contain the toxin and can pose a real threat to health, according to an article in this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Can do great harm
Mercury can damage the nervous system, brain, kidneys, and developing foetuses.
Over time, mercury in antique items can leak out as seals age or when the items are damaged, dropped or moved improperly. Vacuuming up a mercury spill or vaporization from spill-contaminated surfaces such as carpets, floors, furniture, mops, or brooms can release mercury into the air.
The MMWR article, written by experts at the New York State Department of Health, describes a number of cases where mercury leaked from antique items, including an incident in a Southhold, New York, home last year where about a half a litre of mercury leaked from an antique pendulum clock after it fell and broke open.
The residents of the home had to be evacuated until a full environmental cleanup was completed and it was confirmed that the home was safe.
In other incidents, mercury used to add weight to the base of a lamp oozed out on to a roadway as the lamp was being moved, and a small amount of mercury fell off the back of an antique mirror onto a carpet in a private home.
None of the people involved in this or the other incidents suffered any health problems, but the cases underscore the need for caution when handling antiques that contain mercury and for proper cleanup of mercury spills, said the authors of the article.
Here are some safety guidelines:
- Don't buy antiques that contain mercury. If there's any doubt, have the seller verify that the item is mercury-free.
- If you have mercury-containing antiques in your home: Inspect each item thoroughly for cracks or leaks; replace or remove mercury-containing components if possible, but do not attempt to drain or replace the mercury.
- Mercury is a hazardous waste. Contact your local or state health or environmental department for advice on cleaning up or disposing of mercury.
- Ensure antiques with mercury are kept out of reach of children and that children are educated about the dangers of mercury.
- When handling mercury-containing items: Move slowly; support the item with padding; don't turn the item horizontal; keep barometers at a 45-degree angle when moving.
Mercury threat increasing