Mercury and it's effect on the environment

  • Published
  • By Leeni Vilpas and Darcas Pena
  • DS2 Environmental
Throughout Texas there is an element that is capable of seeping through the environment, and puts others at risk. It's highly toxic, silvery, odorless and heavy; Mercury. It is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. Mercury is found in thermometers, barometers, thermostats, manometers, vacuum pumps, switches, discharge tubes, dental amalgams, fluorescent bulbs and tubes, cleaning products, and prepackaged laboratory kits. It is also an element or component in chemical solutions.

Once vaporized, the lungs readily absorb elemental mercury from inhaled air. Much of the elemental mercury absorbed by the lungs reaches, and enters, the brain before it can be oxidized by the red blood cells. Oxidized mercury accumulates in the kidneys and can cause salivation, coughing, chest pain, tremors, emotional instability, kidney damage and reproductive effects. High level acute doses and lower level chronic doses are both cause for concern. Mercury is a poison that will accumulate over time in the environment.

When breakage of an instrument containing mercury is a possibility, the instrument should be placed in an enameled or plastic pan that can be cleaned easily. Be sure the pan is large enough to contain the mercury. Transfers of mercury from one container to another should be carried out in a hood, over a tray or pan to confine any spills. Do not handle mercury over sinks where it could spill down the drain. Always wear nitrile gloves while handling mercury. Latex gloves do not give you enough protection; your gloves can still get contaminated.

Recycling or proper disposal are the only legal means for disposing of certain mercury-containing products because they are banned from disposal in the Sheppard garbage, since it is illegal to pour liquid mercury down the drainage.

On base, fluorescent and high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs are still sometimes being placed in dumpster, which is a prohibited activity. Many lamps and mercury-containing equipment (MCE) contain toxic substances, such as lead and mercury that pose a threat to public health when improperly managed. These hazardous lamps are regulated under the Universal Waste Rule.

The DS2 Environmental Flight is working hard to get everyone on base to turn their HID and fluorescent light bulbs into Universal Waste Recycling Center (UWRC). At the UWRC the mercury containing fluorescent light bulbs will be properly disposed, and recycled, which will help prevent additional waste from going to the landfills. If you have a plethora of burnt out, unusable bulbs, bring them to building 2141 at 1328 Heritage Drive, Sheppard AFB from 8:30 to10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday.

Prior to transporting your bulbs, make sure the bulbs are secured in a sealed container. Label the container with the number of bulbs you're bringing in. At UWRC you can also turn in unused paint, batteries, ballasts, and used rags. Make sure you have an MSDS for products such as paints, cleaners etc. Mr. Tom Minton, Toxics Manager can be reached by phone at (940) 676-3275 and emailed at for any questions you might have regarding universal waste.

In addition, household recyclable items, used ink cartridges, plastics, aluminum cans, and cardboard can be turned in around the corner at building 2140 to Zero Waste Solutions. Contact David Scarborough, phone at (940) 676-4600. If you need to dispose of hazardous waste, email or call to Mr. Greg Mitchell, Hazardous Waste Manager at (940) 676-5720 or email at He will let you know the time he can be at building 2142 to accept your turn-in!

If a fluorescent or HID bulb is broken, mercury is expelled in dust form. Mercury dust in the dumpster can be washed out via precipitation and end up in the storm sewer system. The mercury travels with the storm water along the land surface to bodies of water. During this voyage the heavy mercury may become trapped in pipes, traps and other infrastructure. Mercury will accumulate over time, and possibly result in an expensive hazardous waste cost to Sheppard. Some mercury might be passing through the storm water drainage system into the Wichita and Red Rivers, eventually reaching the ocean. The mercury will also travel through the plumbing system. Therefore, mercury must never be disposed of into the sewer system. The accumulations of mercury in our plumping, dumpsters or in the environment are both unacceptable. Let's make our installation the best air force base in Texas, known for its environmentally friendly ways.