Mercury is naturally occurring and exists in several forms. High mercury exposure results in the permanent nervous system and kidney damage.
Employee exposure to mercury from accidental spills can occur during the repair of broken thermometers, sphygmomanometers, or during sterilization and centrifugation of thermometers in maintenance areas. Mercury can also be found in some pressure-sensing instruments (e.g., barometers and sensors in machine rooms), as well as electronic equipment, and some older, medical devices. When mercury is exposed to the air, as in the case of a spill, it slowly vaporizes.
If spills are not promptly cleaned up, mercury may accumulate on surfaces and then vaporize and be inhaled by unaware workers. Mercury can also be absorbed through the skin.
A wall-mounted blood pressure unit in a doctor’s office examination room failed to spill mercury on the tiled floor. The facility closed the room and hired a contractor to clean up the mercury. After cleanup, air sampling results indicated that mercury was still present. When facility staff called the State Health Department for advice, the Department conducted further air sampling and located additional beads of mercury. In all, it took the contractor several days and three cleaning cycles to completely remove all the mercury and decontaminate the office.
Mercury Health Effects
Acute (short-term) exposure: Acute exposure to high levels of mercury can cause severe respiratory irritation, digestive disturbances, and marked renal damage. Acute inhalation of mercury vapor may also result in health issues, including:
- general malaise (feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness)
- tightness in the chest
- chest pains
- dyspnea (difficulty breathing or shortness of breath)
- stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth and lips)
Chronic (long term) exposure: Chronic exposure to mercury may result in the following:
- weight loss
- disturbance of gastrointestinal function
Waste Anesthetic Gases
The anesthetic gases and vapors that leak into the surrounding room during medical procedures are considered waste anesthetic gases. Healthcare professionals who work in hospitals, operating rooms, dental offices, and veterinary clinics, are potentially exposed to waste anesthetic gases and are at risk of occupational illness.
The waste anesthetic gases and vapors of concern are:
- Nitrous oxide and halogenated agents (vapors) such as: halothane; enflurane; isoflurane & desflurane
Exposure to these gases can occur through leakage of the patient’s anesthetic breathing circuit during the delivery of anesthetic and through exhalations of patients recovering from anesthesia.
Some potential effects of exposure to waste anesthetic gases include the following:
- fatigue and irritability
- birth defects
- liver and kidney disease
Employers and employees should be aware of the potential effects and be advised to take appropriate precautions.
- Instructions For Cleaning Up Mercury Spills
- OSHA Mercury Exposure Requirements
- Hierarchy of Controls For Mercury
- Health Effects & Occupational Exposure to Mercury