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Don’t Mess with Mercury

2009 October 6

A recent snowboarding trip one long weekend was cut short when my cell phone rang and my boss asked if I’d be willing to go to Phoenix. “There’s been a mercury spill in a high school near Phoenix,” he said. “Another one?” I asked. Just one week before, my colleague was sent to Calexico, California to help respond to a mercury spill in a school and help the on-scene coordinator and school district handle the situation. “Yep,” he said. “We got another one.”

I packed up my belongings and headed to Avondale, a Phoenix suburb. I arrived at Agua Fria High School to find emergency responders staged in the “black box” (the school’s drama room) to screen potentially contaminated belongings.

Mercury spills are an immediate health danger. At Agua Fria, a couple of boys got their hands on mercury and split it up into jars and went to their final class of the day.

Emergency responders identified exposed students and retraced their steps to find all potentially contaminated areas. Two buses and five classrooms were contaminated and cleaned up. The 1,700-student high school was closed for three days.

A “lumex” is used to screen for mercury – it looks like a first generation ghost buster (think Igor’s prototype) with a high-pitched whine that could make anyone crazy.

Imagine: you’re a high school student; you find silver liquid that looks cool and beads up like oil in water when you touch it. You bring it to class, throw some at that girl you like, play with it in the locker room, take it home to show your little sister. Now your school’s been closed, EPA officials, the local fire department and the police department are questioning you and pretty much everyone you know. How much did you have? Where did you go? What have you touched? Where are the clothes you were wearing? Do you feel sick?

Two families had to be relocated while their homes were being cleaned up and some students didn’t get some of their belongings back because they were too contaminated to clean up. Those favorite pair of sneakers? Gone. The iPod you got for your birthday? Gone. That sweatshirt you’ve had forever? Gone.

Interestingly enough, a lot of people thought it wasn’t a big deal. Some said they used to play with mercury as children and were fine. There are always arguments about how things used to be done. Sometimes these arguments start with, “In my day…” The best answer I always come up with is that we didn’t know then what we know now.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin, it’s poisonous.  Don’t mess with mercury.

About the Author: Margot Perez-Sullivan works in the EPA’s Public Affairs Office in San Francisco handling media relations in Arizona, Nevada and the Navajo Nation. She has also worked for the agency in the Boston and Washington DC offices.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Johnny R. permalink
    October 6, 2009

    The obvious answer is to withdraw and eleiminate mercury from the economy, but that would disrupt the daily flow of commercial enterprise, oops (!)

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    October 7, 2009

    It sounds like the high school kids probably got a hold of the mercury in a science lab or maybe in a metal shop class. Storing chemicals in school science labs and classrooms is a weak point in the science education system. How the chemicals are stored is something that has not gotten the attention it needs and it is still under the radar screen in many places. Kids that want to can get into the chemicals and use them for pranks or to get even with someone for something and never stop to realize the dangers. Thank you for bringing this to the public attention. Michael E. Bailey.

  3. Ka'ren Ahern permalink
    October 22, 2009

    Every agency and group whose mission is to protect public health needs to start disclosing the real hazards of amalgum (mercury) fillings. While the video on mercury is helpful, imagine this poison in your mouth in the amalgum fillings people need to be cautioned against using!

    Please go to : Consumers for Dental Choice and become informed and protected.

    As part of its educational work, Consumers for Dental Choice wants the full flow of non-deceptive information between dentists and patients. As such, we work to end the American Dental Association’s notorious “gag rule” which tries to silence mercury-free dentists, and the ADA’s promoting mercury amalgam under the deceptive term “silver.” We favor full disclosure of the risks of mercury fillings.

    Please educate the public on poisonous “amalgum” mercury fillings.

  4. Ka'ren Ahern permalink
    October 22, 2009

    Please also warn the public about mercury in vaccines! Please see informative article at link below. Can we please make the correlation that if mercury is so incredibly dangerous to humans that we also do not want it in our mouths as amalgum fillings or injected into us through vaccinations like the Swine Flu shots that have mercury in them as admitted by WA State Dept. of Health as conveyed in article below and in the Seattle Times!

    New Study Demonstrates Significant Harm From Just ONE Mercury-Containing Vaccine
    Posted by: Dr. Mercola
    October 22 2009 | 1,717 views

  5. Jennifer Waggoner permalink
    October 27, 2009

    Mercury is an issue not just in schools, but also in industry. Read this recent letter from the Sierra Club, for example, which applauds the EPA for finally holding industry accountable:

    For years the Bush Administration attempted to shield power plants from clean up requirements, but now the EPA has agreed put new rules in place by 2011 that will protect Americans from the mercury, lead, soot and other harmful toxins emitted by coal and oil power plants.

    For far too long the largest polluters, especially coal plants, have been let off the hook. The National Academy of Sciences just released a report that shows emissions from coal fired power plants are responsible for $62 billion in “hidden” costs, primarily through health damages. And that’s without even taking into account the impact on climate change, ecosystems, or rising food prices.

    It is certainly not asking too much to require that these polluters install adequate controls to protect communities from the harmful toxins they emit. The EPA is moving systematically to end the giant regulatory loopholes that the coal industry has enjoyed for decades, loopholes that allow billions of tons of pollution into our air every year.

    Let the EPA know you applaud their efforts to take on big polluters and make our communities healthier.

    Thanks for all that you do to protect the environment.

    Mary Anne Hitt
    Sierra Club Big Picture Campaign

  6. Amy Bathurst permalink
    December 30, 2009

    Mercury is found in dental amalgam fillings. There is much controversy among dentists on amalgam fillings and the mercury contained in them.

  7. Sandy Baker permalink
    January 15, 2010

    Amy is correct – there is a certain amount of controversy around the issue of mercury in dental fillings. More and more patients are becoming aware of the possible risks and bringing this to their dentists attention. Thanks for the info


  8. Have Rox permalink
    April 20, 2010

    Are you talking about the little bit of mercury found in most thermometers or a higher dosage? Because one time I accidentally broke on of those old time thermometers and spilled mercury on the floor. I just cleaned it up with a few paper towels and broom and dust pan. Could I have been poisoned from that?

    Have Rox

  9. Daniel Disera permalink
    June 29, 2010

    The use of mercury in dental amalgam has sparked an issue relating its disposal when dental amalgam restorations are replaced with white fillings.

  10. Rich Rojas permalink
    November 21, 2010

    I’ve been wondering for quite some time about the safety of amalgam fillings. I’m of a generation that pre-dates all these wonderful composite dental materials we have today that have replaced the old fashioned mercury-based fillings. As a result I have quite a few amalgam fillings.

    I’ve been asking dentists for years about the risk of mercury leaching out from amalgam fillings and the response I always get is that the mercury in amalgam fillings is inert. Somehow I’m still not convinced and think they are just reciting the party line in regard to this issue.

    I would like to see more studies done on this.


  11. Adam West permalink
    January 4, 2011

    So, mercury in tooth fillings!? I can’t imagine. Considering the story about the school, how in the world could we be using mercury in our mouth? What if I pick out a random dentist from the web, and go there for a tooth repair. How do I know it’s safe? And being an old (in body only!) guy, could I have a mouth full of mercury now?

  12. King permalink
    November 2, 2013

    I just love this world, I have 17 amalgam fillings I’ve had them for three years and been sick since I got them in, was I told that they were putting mercury in my mouth? NO I was not, I’m only nineteen years old and haven’t been able to do anything for the past three years, I have kidney stones, hmm I wonder how that happened, now that I know why I’m sick I’m going to get help for my health problems and then sue everyone responsible for taking the past three years of my life, not everyone gets sick from these, but what about the ones that do, I didn’t sign up for this I want my life back

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