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Mercury in Antiques can Pose a Hazard - Study

We must be careful when handling antiques, for some could carry in them mercury, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns. Mirrors can be backed with mercury and tin ; Clock pendulums might be weighted with embedded vials of mercury; and barometers, thermometers and lamps may have mercury in their bases for ballast. The problem is that mercury in old items can leak, particularly as seals age or when the items are moved CDC says.

Ask Ann Smith, whose heirloom clock's pendulum leaked mercury onto the carpet of her gift store in rural Delhi, N.Y., as a cleaner moved it. An attempt to vacuum the tiny silver balls off the carpet only made things worse, requiring a hazardous materials team to be dispatched to Parker House Gifts and Accessories last summer.

"I didn't really think it was the hazard that it became," Smith said. "I grew up in the days when you played with the mercury that spilled out of a thermometer and nobody knew it was a problem." Exposure to high levels of mercury can cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system. Even the few ounces found in some antiques can be dangerous. Aptly nicknamed quicksilver, it's hard to clean up, and can become an inhalation hazard if it vaporizes. Dr. Wanda Lizak Wells of the New York state Department of Health, co-author of the study, suggests getting professional help if even a few ounces spill from an old barometer. And never use a vacuum.

"That is one of the worst things that people can do," she said. The mercury can be heated up by the vacuum motor and vaporize. That was the mistake Smith's clock cleaner made at her shop near the Catskill Mountains. The vacuum was discarded as hazardous waste. The amount of mercury in a fever thermometer, however, can be safely cleaned without expert assistance as long as proper steps are taken, like wearing old clothes and rubber gloves, according to Wells.

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