I have a sample of Mercury in a plastic vial, The vial is a BD Vacutainer (genuine), made of polyethylene terephthalate. It is used for blood samples, and the one I used was new.

When the vial was new, it was almost as transparent as glass, as seen in the image:

vacutainer http://mm.claflinequip.com/catalog/product/cache/2/image/750x750/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/i/2/i20885.jpg

However, after about a month, here is what the vial looks like: enter image description here

As you can see, the vial has darkened.

The vial was sealed with a small initial layer of hot glue about 1 centimeter from the top, then the last centimeter was filled to the brim with epoxy, to ensure it won't leak.

I have been handling the vial quite a lot, but it has been stored in the padded box as seen in the image.

What is causing the plastic to darken? Once again the vial is made out of polyethylene terephthalate if that could be useful.


  • $\begingroup$ My guess (only a guess, not an answer!) is that it is mercuric oxide forming on the walls. Hot glue is not a hermetic seal, so oxygen will leak in, and react with mercury vapor. Mercuric oxide is a solid at normal room conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 26, 2014 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ I've only ever seen mercury in glass containers, but sometimes the glass got dark too. $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Aug 27, 2014 at 15:24

1 Answer 1


Mercury doesn't react with PET under normal conditions, but mercury vapor will diffuse into plastics. The diffusion will change the optical density of the plastic in the area where diffusion occurred.

Here's a link to a nice study where the mercury was doped with a radioactive isotope of mercury. This doped mercury was placed in a glass chamber which also contained plastic discs held at a known distance above the mercury. The plastic discs were removed after various times and then microtomed. The various layers of the microtomed plastic disc were measured for radioactivity. Analysis of the resulting data allowed the investigators to measure the rate constant for diffusion of mercury into the plastic.

One final point, plastics are sometimes contaminated with small amounts of various impurities. Sometimes these impurities were intentionally introduced, such as radical chain terminating materials (sulfur is an example) in order to produce polymers with a certain molecular weight distribution. So while the plastic itself might not react with mercury, an impurity might. The above link also provides analysis of plastic contaminated with sulfur and finds a much higher mercury diffusion constant in such materials.


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