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UCLA Home / Campus Safety / Environment, Health & Safety / Hazardous Waste

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Chemical Spills
Summary: While many chemical spills can be prevented, they still happen despite your best efforts to avoid them. It is important to know what to do in the event of a spill.

In the event of a chemical spill, there are several options available:

  • Call 911 from a campus phone. Your call will go to UCPD and you can report a chemical spill to the Operator at the Trouble Desk. If the phone you are calling from is a cell phone or off-campus phone dial (310) 825-1491 for UCPD Dispatch.
  • If the spill is not an emergency but requires assistance and is during normal business hours (8 a.m. - 5 p.m.) you can call Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) at (310) 825-5689. Trained personnel are available for consultation and cleanup. EH&S maintains a well-trained Haz Mat Team who can handle spills of almost any size or complexity. Members of the team are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. After hours, Haz Mat Team activity is coordinated through the Trouble Desk and the UCPD. The UCLA Haz Mat Team will be alerted by the UCPD.

Determining if a waste is a "hazardous waste" can be difficult. The best policy is to assume all chemicals must be handled as hazardous waste and can only be disposed of through the EH&S Chemical Waste Program. Strict sewer, air emissions and landfill regulations require that hazardous waste is not drain disposed, evaporated in fume hoods or disposed of in the normal trash. Contact EH&S for help in classifying waste as hazardous or non-hazardous.

In case of a chemical spill, the procedures to follow are:

  • Alert people in immediate area of the spill.
  • Determine the chemical nature of the spill and check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). 
  • If the material is highly toxic or hazardous, call 911 from a campus phone or EH&S at (310) 825-5689
  • If a volatile, toxic or flammable material is spilled, immediately warn everyone to evacuate the area, and turn off all electrical and spark producing equipment if possible.
  • Use a fire extinguisher to extinguish any flames if applicable.

Small Spills (usually less than 1 liter of material)

  • If it is your laboratory policy and you have been trained in spill clean-up procedures, your laboratory can proceed to clean up the spill. The spill has to be in your lab or shop area for you to clean it up without the assistance of EH&S. If the spill occurs in a common area or corridor, you must contact the EH&S for assistance.
  • Put up signs or barrier tape to prevent access to the area.
  • Wear protective equipment, including respirator, safety goggles and gloves. 
  • Dike the spill by surrounding the area with absorbent materials such as paper towels, spill control pillows, vermiculite, sand or absorbent pads for organic liquids (where applicable). 
  • Proceed to clean up the spill using the same materials. 
  • Neutralize acids with sodium bicarbonate and bases with citric acid. 
  • After cleanup, all materials, including paper towels used in the cleanup, must be disposed of as Hazardous Waste. Double bag the waste or more as needed. Label the waste bags using a Hazardous Waste Online Waste Tag. 
  • Wash the affected surface with soap and water and clean up by ordinary means. 
  • Bring the waste bag to the next regularly scheduled Hazardous Waste pickup, or call EH&S at (310) 206-1887 to schedule a pick-up.

Large Spills (usually more than 1 liter of material)

  • Contact EH&S for clean-up

Mercury Spill Cleanup

In the case of a small mercury spill in your laboratory, such as a broken thermometer, one option is to clean up the spill yourself.  This option should only be exercised if it is your laboratory policy and you have been trained to do so.  If your laboratory decides to clean up the mercury spill on their own, follow the clean-up procedure below.  The other option is to contact EH&S to clean up the mercury spill.  They have a highly trained hazmat team with equipment to handle the clean-up of mercury. They also have sensitive mercury detection equipment to ensure that the mercury spill has been cleaned properly.
Remember that mercury is a very toxic chemical. Prolonged exposure to mercury vapor will cause damage to the human nervous system. It is important to clean up all mercury spills completely.  If the mercury spilled on a porous surface such as a rug or cloth chair, do not attempt to clean up and contact EH&S for assistance. 
For more information on chemical spills, see the Laboratory Chemical Spill Procedures. They can be found in your Laboratory Safety Manual.

What NEVER to do in the Event of a Mercury Spill

  • Never walk around an area that is contaminated with mercury.  Mercury is easily spread and the spill area may not be easily identified.  Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.
  • Never use an ordinary vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury vapor into the air and increase exposure. The vacuum cleaner will be contaminated and will have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
  • Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
  • Never wash mercury-contaminated items in a washing machine. Mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute the water system.

What to do if a Mercury Thermometer Breaks in Your Laboratory:

Initial Steps

  1. Keep everyone away from incident room to prevent the spread of contamination. Before sending anyone out of incident room, check for mercury on clothing and the bottom of shoes. If mercury is visible on any article of clothing or shoes, remove the articles from the person and keep the articles in the incident room.  If the person has walked through the spill area and mercury is not visible, the individual must stay in the area until monitoring can be performed by EH&S personnel.
  2. Close any doors that may help to isolate the incident room as long as you can do so without walking through the spill.
  3. If you or any other person has come in contact with the mercury or suspect that you have been contaminated, do not leave the area so you don’t spread the contamination.  Call EH&S at x55689 or 911 from a campus phone for assistance in decontaminating the exposed individuals.

Clean-up Procedure:

  1. If you have been trained and it is your laboratory policy to clean small mercury spills (usually the quantity found in a thermometer or less), you can proceed to clean up the spill. The spill has to be in your lab or shop area for you to clean it up on your own.  You must contact the EH&S for assistance if the spill occurs in a common area, corridor, and/or if the amount of mercury spilled is larger than is typically found in a thermometer.
  2. Put on rubber, nitrile, or latex gloves.
  3. Put on disposable, non-porous shoe covers (plastic bags may work for this).
  4. Perform a visual inspection to determine the extent of the contamination.
  5. Use a flashlight to look for mercury beads. Shine the flashlight at many low, different angles on the spill area. The light will reflect off of the shiny mercury beads to make it easier to see them.  Start at least one foot behind where you believe the contamination starts.  If you cannot find the mercury, contact EH&S for assistance.
  6. Contain the mercury spill to as small of an area as possible.  Prevent the mercury beads from spreading into drains, cracks or crevices, on to sloped or porous surfaces, or any other inaccessible areas.
  7. Work from the outside of the spill area to the center of the spill area. Push the mercury beads together with a 3 X 5 index card or stiff paper to form larger droplets. Mercury beads roll very quickly, so be careful!  Push the mercury beads into a plastic dustpan or use a pipette to pick up the beads.  You can also use tape to pick up the little beads of mercury, but be careful because they might not always stick. Collect all mercury into a sealable plastic bag.
  8. If the mercury spill involves glass pieces, such as from a glass thermometer, pick them up with care, as they may be sharp.  Place all broken glass on a small paper towel.  Fold up the paper towel and place it in the same sealable plastic bag as the mercury droplets.
  9. When you think you’ve picked up all of the mercury, shine a flashlight (at many different, low angles) on the area to help find any remaining mercury beads or glass. The light will reflect off the shiny mercury beads and glass.
  10. Contact EH&S Hazmat Team at x55689 for mercury vapor monitoring to ensure that there is no further contamination.
  11. Remove shoe covers and gloves and place into waste bag.
  12. Seal the bag and place it into a second plastic bag.  Seal the outer bag as well.
  13. Use the On-Line Tag Program (OTP) to create a hazardous waste tag.  Affix the tag to the outer bag and bring it to the next hazardous waste pick-up for your building.
  14. Inspect your shoes and clothing for mercury before exiting the area.
  15. After you are completely finished with the mercury clean up, wash your hands. If other parts of your body may have come in contact with mercury, shower or bathe.

Mercury Spill Kit Recommendations

  1. 4-5 ziplock-type bags (1-gallon size)
  2. 4-5 trash bags (30-gallon size)
  3. At least 6 pairs of rubber, nitrile or latex gloves
  4. Paper towels
  5. 3 X 5 index card or stiff paper
  6. Duct tape
  7. Flashlight with spare batteries
  8. Non-porous shoe covers
  9. Plastic dust pan or plastic tray
  10. Emergency contact information (EH&S Office- x55689)


Environment, Health and Safety
Phone: (310) 825-5689

UCPD Dispatch

Campus Phone: 911
Cell Phone: (310) 825-1491

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