The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has completed emergency response activities following two mercury spills in Santurce, Puerto Rico. EPA is warning parents and the public not to keep mercury at home and to exercise caution when faced with accidental spills of mercury.
The most recent incident began January 25, 2011 at the Fedrecio Asenjo Middles School in Santurce’s Barrio Obrero community. A student brought a container with metallic or elemental mercury (popularly called 'azogue') to school. The container broke in his backpack contaminating his property and a portion of the school. A janitor’s attempt to mop up the spill spread the contamination. EPA has responded to several incidents recently that have involved careless handling of mercury. Mercury is an extremely toxic metal that easily goes from solid or liquid form to vapor and back. Exposure to even relatively small amounts of mercury can cause serious health problems, especially in children. Exposure to mercury can harm the heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. The brain and nervous systems can be seriously impacted. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
“Mercury can vaporize so easily that even a tiny amount can contaminate a large area,” said Judith Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “Mercury is dangerous and parents and teachers need to make sure their kids know not to play with it. While in the latest case and in other recent cases EPA has been able to clean the mercury up, we are asking that people be extremely careful to avoid this kind of accident.”
EPA’s investigation led the Agency to the child’s home where it was discovered that two apartments in Las Margaritas housing complex also in Santurce were contaminated. High mercury vapors had contaminated both residences and the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency was contacted to provide potential relocation for the families.
At the school, the Puerto Rico Department of Education and the Puerto Department of Health quickly responded by hiring a contractor to clean up the mercury contamination; test students and staff for mercury poisoning; and monitor the potentially impacted areas at the school. Over 70 students had to be tested. The high vapor concentration areas were secured and isolated. The school is now operating normally. Working in coordination with the school district, EPA conducted the initial mercury screening and provided technical support to the school’s contractor in assessing contamination in the school and in monitoring contaminated areas.
The source of the student’s mercury was traced to children of the residents in the two Las Margaritas apartments. They are believed to have dismantled an old blood pressure instrument and extracted mercury from the device. Mercury, which is a silver liquid metal often found in old thermometers, barometers, thermostats, electrical switches, and science labs. Opening mercury containers allows mercury vapors to escape and inhaled by people in the area. Pouring or spilling mercury is even more dangerous as the liquid seeps into floors, rugs, etc., and evaporates over time, exposing people to the toxic vapors. Mercury spills, which may occur in homes, schools, hospitals and anywhere, are difficult to remedy and cleaning them up with a vacuum cleaner or broom will spread the contamination and make matters worse.
Parents of children who may have been exposed to toxic elemental mercury are strongly urged to contact their doctor.
What to Do with a Mercury Spill:
- Keep people away from mercury liquid to reduce exposure to vapors and to avoid further contamination by walking in, or through, the liquid.
- Wash with soap and water. Remove clothes that may have been exposed to mercury or mercury vapors and place them in a plastic bag for disposal.
What NOT to Do with a Mercury Spill:
- Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
- Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
- Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.