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An inexpensive method to test for mercury vapor in herbarium cabinets

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Mercuric chloride has been used for control of insect and fungal infestations in herbarium collections for over two centuries. One of the lasting effects of this use is the long-term evolution of elemental mercury vapor from treated specimens. The vapor can contaminate untreated specimens sharing the same closed environment and can pose a human health hazard. By modifying the technique for use of a commercially available mercury indicating powder (Mallinckrodt Baker, Inc., J. T. Baker Mercury Indicator) it is possible to create an inexpensive and fairly rapid test for mercury vapor in herbarium cabinets. The indicator is mixed with deionized water and applied to glass microscope slides. One or more slides are placed inside a cabinet and any color change in the indicator is compared to unexposed controls. In the authors' experiments, the indicator results were compared against readings taken using a Jerome 431-X Mercury Vapor Analyzer and a Lumex RA-915+ Multifunctional Mercury Analyzer and were found to be broadly related to the concentration of mercury vapor present in each cabinet. The method can be used to check for mercury contamination in incoming shipments of specimens and to identify cabinets that currently contain or formerly contained contaminated specimens. Practical safety guidelines have been developed for accessing cabinets that give a positive test for the vapor and for handling contaminated specimens.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Conservator, 2419 Barbour Road, Falls Church, Virginia 22043, U.S.A. 2: Smithsonian Office of Safety and Environmental Management, 750 Ninth Street, Suite 9100, Washington, D.C. 20560, U.S.A. 3: Department of Systematic Biology-Botany Section, National Museum of Natural History, MRC 166, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560, U.S.A. 4: U.S. Department of Energy, EH-53/270 Corporate Square Building 1000 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20585, U.S.A. 5: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Robert A. Taft Laboratories, 4676 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio 45226, U.S.A.

Publication date: 2004-08-01

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