Environmental Health
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What you need to know

Exposure to mercury may affect and harm your brain, heart, immune system, kidneys, lungs, and central nervous system. The DHHS Mercury Program provides education about dangers from exposure, poisoning, proper disposal, and spill clean-up.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a chemical element that is also called quicksilver. It's present in air, soil, and water. Elemental or metallic mercury is a heavy silvery-white metal in liquid form at ordinary temperatures. Organic mercury is released into the environment from fossil fuel combustion, mining operations, trash incineration, and industrial waste discharges. Exposure to mercury may affect and harm your brain, heart, immune system, kidneys, lungs, and central nervous system. Carefully manage mercury-containing products to prevent an accidental release and protect your health.

Where is mercury found?

Mercury may be found in consumer products such as pressure gauges, switches, thermometers, and thermostats. Did you also know fish may contain organic methylmercury? Many state agencies work together to issue fish advisories. These advisories don't ban the consumption of fish from particular water bodies. Instead, they provide information about limiting consumption and safely preparing/eating fish that's caught.

Health effects

Did you know the most toxic effects from mercury exposure come from breathing in contaminated air Short-term exposure to high concentrations of mercury may cause chest pain, chest tightness, chills, coughing, difficulty breathing, fever, and headaches. You may also experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, mouth soreness, or nausea. Symptoms may subside with time, or could get worse and damage your kidneys and lungs. 

Short-term exposure to mercury may not lead to long-lasting health effects. Long-term exposure to mercury liquid or vapor may cause effects gradually developing over time like fine shaking of the eyelids, hands, jaw, lips, or tongue. Shaking could indicate damage to your central nervous system. If you have concerns about exposure, please see a doctor.

Other known effects of mercury poisoning are allergic skin rashes, indecision, insomnia, intellectual deterioration, irritability, and memory loss. Metallic mercury may also negatively affect the health of an unborn fetus.

Mercury spills

Pre clean-up

Don't vacuum! Heat generated by vacuums may turn mercury into a toxic gas that can be inhaled. Vacuums scatter mercury and may spread it to other areas of your home. Mercury may be easily spread to other areas of your home by clothing, pets, and even your shoes. Block access or shut the door to the room where the spill occurred and don't let children or pets into the area.

Ventilate! Open windows, shut vents, and turn off your furnace fan. Mercury easily evaporates at warmer temperatures. If your air conditioning is on, turn it off and open your windows to encourage off gassing.


If the spill is larger than a thermometer, follow these guidelines, and call the Nebraska Mercury Call Line at (888) 242-1100, Extension 4. If the spill is more than two tablespoons, it's mandatory to call the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802.

Clean carefully! Use the "flashlight test" to find all mercury that spilled. Getting the area or room as dark as possible, shine a flashlight around the area to see where the spill occurred. Since mercury is metallic, it reflects light. Collect all visible recoverable spilled mercury using an eyedropper, or by gently scraping the mercury up with a card or paper. Put the mercury in a non-metal airtight container for proper disposal or recycling. Don't put mercury in dumpsters, sinks, or toilets. Remove and dispose of all absorbent materials like carpeting or upholstery that were contaminated. Dispose of any items used for the clean-up such as brooms, cards, clothing, and gloves. More information can be found here below.

Shoe care

If you stepped through a mercury-contaminated area, it's possible you might have trace amounts of mercury on the bottom of your shoes. Trace amounts of mercury evaporate to the surrounding environment quickly, especially in warmer temperatures. Remove your shoes as soon as possible to avoid spreading contamination further. Leave your shoes outdoors at least 2 to 3 days to off gas any remaining mercury vapors. You may also throw your shoes away in the regular trash if you wish.

Compact florescent light bulbs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs may contain a very small amount of mercury that can be released if a bulb breaks. Ventilate the area by opening a window or door to the outside. Shut off your furnace fan or air conditioning system. Isolate the area from any foot traffic, especially children and pets. Leave the area or room for approximately 15 minutes, then return wearing gloves. Carefully pick-up any fragments from the bulb, and scoop-up the powder with cardboard or a stiff piece of paper. You may also use Scotch tape to pick-up debris. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel or disposable wipe. Keep the spill area ventilated for 3 to 4 hours. Vacuuming isn't recommended for most compact florescent light bulb breaks, but might be necessary if the bulb was broken over carpet or broken glass and powder remain after cleaning. Vacuuming may increase the amount of mercury vapor in the air. Follow the recommendations below to decrease exposure:

  • Don't immediately vacuum the area or room.
  • Open a window or door to the outside.
  • Turn off your heating or air conditioning system. 
  • Throw away your vacuum bag immediately after vacuuming.
  • The next couple of times you vacuum, air out the room both during and after.

Thermostat recycling

Air conditioning, heating and ventilation contractors, distributors, and wholesalers, are encouraged to participate in the Thermostat Recycling Corporation's Thermostat Recycling Program. The program provides a convenient cost-effective way to recycle mercury thermostats. General Electric, Honeywell, and White-Rodgers established the Thermostat Recycling Corporation to recycle all brands of wall-mounted mercury thermostats. It's a reverse distribution system where thermostats are collected after they have been removed from service. Later, the thermostats go into special collection containers located at participating facilities for recycling. When collection containers are full, the participating facility returns the container to the Thermostat Recycling Corporation in exchange for a new container. The next step is to remove the mercury switches from the thermostats and send them to a company. In turn, this company purifies the mercury for reuse. This program only recycles wall-mounted mercury thermostats. It doesn't include other mercury-containing devices like batteries or fluorescent lamps. It's important to return the entire thermostat; the thermostat housing protects the mercury switch during shipment. This helps to prevent breakage during shipment. The recycling containers should not include thermostats returned under warranty. Hundreds of mercury-containing thermostats are replaced each year. Many of these thermostats are disposed of in the trash. Once sent to a landfill, mercury may leak out of the thermostats and can potentially get into the air and water. The result is mercury contamination of ground water, surface water, and drinking water resources.

Household hazardous waste collection sites


Mercury call line

Nebraskans can call (402) 314-3974 and obtain information about spill clean-up, health effects from exposure, and disposal or recycling options for intact mercury devices or free mercury. Staff are available to answer the call line most hours of the day and voice mail is available when staff is not. Missed calls are returned within 24 hours.



Office of Environmental Health Hazards & Indoor Air
Division of Public Health/Department of Health & Human Services
Phone Number
(402) 471-1005
Toll Free Number
(888) 242-1100
Mailing Address
301 Centennial Mall South, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509