Google Answers Logo
View Question
Q: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   8 Comments )
Subject: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
Category: Health
Asked by: atrax-ga
List Price: $15.00
Posted: 20 May 2005 07:28 PDT
Expires: 19 Jun 2005 07:28 PDT
Question ID: 523690
A family member is convinced that she suffers from mercury poisoning,
specifically in the area of brain function. Several years ago she
lived in a small apartment (one large room plus bathroom) for about
nine months. When she moved in, a standard household thermometer broke
and she never found the mercury.

My Question: Can that type of exposure to the amount of mercury in a
household thermometer affect a person's brain function or cause any
other health problems? Yes or No.

If Yes, I'd like evidence to support that answer and information about
possible treatments.

If No, I'd like evidence to support that answer so I can put her mind at ease.

If there are differing opinions on this issue, I'd like to see real
evidence from both sides.

Thank you.
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
Answered By: websearcher-ga on 20 May 2005 08:43 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi atrax:

[Please bear in mind that Google Answers Researchers are not doctors
and do not give out medical advice.]

My research on this question has lead me to the answer "yes - your
family member could possibly have contracted mercury poisoning from
this broken thermometer". Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that any
brain disfunction of which she complains *was* caused by mercury
poisoning - only that under the circumstances you list, mercury
exposure could have occured - *and* that such exposure *could* lead to
brain disfunction.

In looking for your answer, I stuck with the most authoritative
sources. I found the following at the Environment Protection Agency
(EPA) of the U.S. government:

Mercury Poisoning - How to Protect Your Family
Quote: "When products containing mercury break, the mercury can
evaporate, creating a risk of dangerous exposures to mercury vapor in
indoor air. Moreover, exposed mercury in the home or in the waste
disposal system enters the environment and can be deposited in lakes
and rivers, where it can be transformed into a highly toxic version of
mercury called methylmercury.
However, if the consumer fails to clean up mercury either because he
or she is unaware that it has broken or because it is difficult to
gain access to the mercury (for instance because it has seeped through
a carpet), then the mercury will eventually volatilize and might reach
dangerous levels in indoor air. The risks increase if the consumer
attempts to clean up a mercury spill with a vacuum cleaner, or if the
mercury is heated for some reason. The danger of significant mercury
exposure is greatest in a small, poorly-ventilated room."

Your relative couldn't find the spilled mercury, probably tried to
clean it up incorrectly and thereby evaporated even more of it, and
was in a small space with the mercury over a period of time when it
might have evaporated.

The same site also lists this valuable information:

Is any exposure to mercury harmful to people?
Quote: "The factors that determine how severe the health effects are
from mercury exposure include:
* the chemical form of mercury - elemental (metallic), inorganic
compounds, or organic compounds
* the dose -- how much 
* the duration of exposure -- how long 
* the route of exposure -- eating, breathing, injecting, touching 
* other chemical exposures 
* the specific characteristics of the person - age, health"

Another page has this to say:

Mercury Exposures in Nevada
Quote: "All mercury spills, regardless of quantity, should be treated
seriously. Metallic mercury slowly evaporates when exposed to the air.
The air in a room can reach contamination levels just from the mercury
in a broken thermometer - just a few drops. When liquid mercury is
spilled, it forms droplets that can accumulate in the tiniest of
spaces and then emit vapors. Health problems caused by mercury depend
on how much has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long
you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to it.
The symptoms of mercury poisoning can include:
* impairment of peripheral vision 
* disturbances in sensations - that "pins and needles" feeling as well
as numbness - usually in the hands feet and sometimes around the mouth
* lack of coordination of movements, such as writing 
* impairment of speech, hearing, walking 
* muscle weakness 
* skin rashes 
* mood swing, memory loss, and mental disturbances"

Given that your relative is no longer in the apartment where the
exposure might have took place, there is no point getting into methods
for safely cleaning up such a spill. However, I found some
not-so-promising information about testing and treatment for mercury

Medical Encyclopedia - Mercury
Quote: "Severity of symptoms and long-term effects are dependent on
the amount of exposure and the time to treatment. It is important to
be evaluated by a physician for any suspected mercury exposure.
Mercury causes neurologic effects, including irritability,
developmental delay, or psychosis."

Medical Management Guidelines (MMGs) for Mercury (Hg) 
Quote: "What tests can be done if a person has been exposed to elemental mercury? 
Specific tests for the presence of mercury in blood and urine can be
useful to assess the level of exposure. If a severe exposure has
occurred, x-rays and blood and urine tests might show whether or not
the lungs and kidneys have been damaged. Testing is not needed in
every case."

Given that the exposure was years ago, there are fewer treatment
options avialable. Please have your relative tested for mercury
poisoning - that is the only real way to rule out (or rule in) whether
mercury poisoning occurred. If it did, then their doctor can give you
a list of treatment options that are appropriate to the case.

Search Strategy (on Google):
* "mercury poisoning" thermometer
* "mercury poisoning" thermometer OR
* "mercury poisoning" treatment
* "mercury poisoning" treatment
* "elemental mercury" treatment

I hope this helps! If you have any further questions after your
relative is tested, please let me know.

Keeping my fingers crossed for you. 

atrax-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $5.00

Thanks for your prompt and thorough response. While I was hoping for a
negative answer, it's good to know the facts from reliable sources.

In this case the exposure occured about 7 years ago. The apartment was
not carpeted; but I see that mercury can scatter widely when dropped
on hard surfaces. She discovered the broken thermometer in a laundry
basket. So it probably contaminated her clothing as well. She just
recently associated her symptoms with the event.

Unfortunately, she doesn't have health insurance. So if anyone knows
of free or low cost programs to test or treat people for mercury
poisoning, I would appreciate any comments.

The exposure in this case was

Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: websearcher-ga on 20 May 2005 11:04 PDT
Hi atrax: 

Thanks for the kind rating, comments, and tip. I really hope that your
relative doesn't have mercury poisoning - it sounds very nasty.

As for free or low-cost testing, it would help if we knew what
city/state/country you were in so we can search for solutions near to

Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: pinkfreud-ga on 20 May 2005 11:14 PDT
If it will put your family member's mind at ease, most fever
thermometers no longer contain mercury. If the thermometer was broken
as recently as 7 years ago, the likelihood is that it was not a
mercury thermometer.
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: atrax-ga on 20 May 2005 12:17 PDT
Websearcher: She is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of
Michigan hospital.

Pinkfreud: Thanks for the commment. Unfortunately, the thermometer had
belonged to her grandmother and could have been decades old.
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: myoarin-ga on 20 May 2005 18:03 PDT
Okay, that has to be the information that any responsible source
gives, and the answer to the situation is proper testing for mercury

But, when I was a kid (dad had made a barometer), I played with
mercury, rubbing it on dimes (then silver), making them shine - real
physical contact, and no one has suggested that I am not normal

Furthermore:  the rotating lenses in lighthouses (big circular glass
constructions) were - or still are -  supported by mercury in a
U-shaped circlar ring, the smaller ring bearing the lenses floating in
the mercury.
Lighthouse keepers would have all been "mad as hatters" if the risk
had been as great as the sites suggest.  The "mad hatter" in "Alice in
Wonderland" was indeed a subject of mercury poisoning, since it was
used in the felting process, but at temperatures that really created

Here is another site on the subject:

Has your family member had symtoms of mercury poisoning since that time?
Is there any information on symptoms occurring much later?
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: atrax-ga on 21 May 2005 05:51 PDT
myoarin: I did the same things you did with mercury as a child,
rolling it around, coating coins with it etc. It was fun stuff. And I
never felt worse for it. That's why I was initially skeptical about
mercury poisoning.

But some of the links provided here show that elemental mercury is not
generally harmful to the skin. You can even swallow it and the stuff
is so slick that it just passes through your body without damage. The
real danger, it seems, is from breathing in the vapors over a long
period of time. You and I didn't even know there were vapors and,
fortunately, our exposure was brief.

Maybe lighthouse keepers WERE affected by mercury. They lived very
isolated lives and no one ever brought them together to study.

In my relative's case, I think the exposure may have intensified some
personality characteristics that were already present as well as
adding new ones. But things developed slowly and I don't think there
was a specific point in time that anyone noticed a sudden change.

I'm still hopeful that someone can find leads on free or low-cost
testing and possible treatment.

Thanks to all.
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: linezolid-ga on 26 May 2005 11:49 PDT
It is unlikely that this family member is suffering from the effects
of mercury poisoning.

Essentially, one can have either acute toxicity (from a large one-time
exposure, as is the potential in this case), or chronic toxicity (from
prolonged, low-level exposure, such as hatters in Victorian England,
as mentioned above).  Also, mercury can be in one of three forms,
elemental (as in batteries or thermometers), inorganic (i.e. fixatives
and processing agents), and organic (i.e. insecticides).  Elemental
mercury must be inhaled to be absorbed.

In this case, since your family member did not get sick, she did not
have a significant acute mercury exposure.  Since she did not break a
thermometer weekly for the last 7 years, she does not have chronic
mercury poisoning.  In any case, she does not appear to have symptoms
of mercury poisoning (although you do not specify what her symptoms
are, mercury poisoning is, as the researcher mentioned, very nasty,
and would affect more than one body system, i.e. more than just a few
memory problems).  Following are the symptoms of acute and chronic
elemental mercury toxicity:

"Elemental Mercury
"The two organs most vulnerable to elemental mercury inhalation are
the lungs and the brain; the blood-brain barrier is readily
penetrated. Elemental mercury ingestion is considered benign because
systemic absorption is unlikely.[15] The exceptions are in patients
with intestinal problems such as diverticulosis, fistula formation, or
obstruction, where mercury may be trapped or retained in the
gastrointestinal tract for a prolonged period of time. This allows
bacteria to convert the elemental form into organic mercury which can
be systemically absorbed.[11] [31] Aspiration of elemental mercury,
however, may cause a severe pneumonitis and even result in respiratory
failure.[18] Subcutaneous injections of elementary mercury may also
allow continuous absorption leading to chronic toxicity.[48]
Similarly, intravenous injection can lead to sequestrations in the
lungs causing both acute and chronic toxicity.

"Acute Toxicity
"Acute toxicity from elementary mercury vapor may be quite
consequential. Concentrated elemental mercury vapor exposure can cause
acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and pneumonitis. Clinical
manifestations may include cough, fever and chills, dyspnea, metallic
taste, and headaches. Severe cases may progress into hypoxia and
respiratory failure.[24] Acute encephalopathy and seizures may develop
from concentrated exposures. Elementary mercury aspiration[18] and
intravenous injections can lead to a severe pneumonitis and
embolization of the pulmonary vasculature,[17] respectively; both
conditions may lead to hypoxia. With sufficient systemic absorption,
acute renal toxicity manifested by proteinuria, nephrotic syndrome,
and acute renal failure may occur.[15]

"Chronic Toxicity
"With prolonged or chronic exposure, the classic features of mercury
toxicity are frequently encountered: tremors (intentional fine tremors
with coarse shakes), oral cavity lesions (gingivitis, stomatitis,
cheilitis), rash, salivation, headaches, diaphoresis, and erethism.
Erethism is a constellation of signs and symptoms, including shyness,
emotional lability, nervousness, insomnia, memory problems, and
inability to concentrate. Peripheral sensorimotor neuropathy,
dysarthria, and parkinsonian symptoms are frequently associated with
chronic elementary mercury toxicity.[15]"

Ford, MD et al., Clinical Toxicology, 1st ed, W. B. Saunders Company,
Philadelphia, 2001.
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: myoarin-ga on 26 May 2005 17:25 PDT
That is what I was hoping someone could provide.  Thanks.
Subject: Re: Mercury Poisoning from a Broken Thermometer?
From: ts4u-ga on 10 Jul 2005 12:03 PDT
You can find a simple home test kit and possible attempt to cleanse
your body go to  also you may look into HBT chamber
after the cleansing.

Important Disclaimer: Answers and comments provided on Google Answers are general information, and are not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. Google does not endorse, and expressly disclaims liability for any product, manufacturer, distributor, service or service provider mentioned or any opinion expressed in answers or comments. Please read carefully the Google Answers Terms of Service.

If you feel that you have found inappropriate content, please let us know by emailing us at with the question ID listed above. Thank you.
Search Google Answers for
Google Answers  

Google Home - Answers FAQ - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy