Don’t Mess with Mercury

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.