Study outlines mercury dangers to children

Source:  The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 9, 2009
By: Jan Heffler

The now-shuttered Kiddie Kollege Day Care in Gloucester County is not the only place where children have inhaled poisonous mercury vapors, according to a national study.

Children were exposed to the vapors in hundreds of cases over a six-year period ended in 2007. Fourteen incidents detailed in the study were classified as public-health hazards, including the Franklinville day care.

In the Kiddie Kollege case, as many as 100 children and babies breathed mercury vapors from 2002 to 2004 after a bankrupt thermometer factory was converted into a day care without a proper cleanup.

Saying he didn’t want a repeat of “the Kiddie Kollege nightmare,” U.S. Rep. Frank J. LoBiondo (R., N.J.) two years ago commissioned a study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine the scope of the health threat.

The agencies released their 65-page report to the public last week.

“As the report demonstrates, future mercury exposures are preventable if the correct public health officials, teachers, and parents have the facts and take action,” LoBiondo said in a prepared statement. He has not ruled out legislation to further protect children from mercury exposure.

Mercury vapors can cause respiratory and neurological problems, mood changes, tremors, and pain in the extremities, especially in children, according to the report. Some children at Kiddie Kollege had symptoms, but it was not clear whether they were because of the toxic vapors.

Also mentioned in the study was a factory in Hoboken, N.J., that had made mercury-vapor lamps. When it was converted into condominiums, serious health problems resulted. Pools of mercury were found in the subflooring, and an evacuation was ordered. The building was demolished.

“The trend toward redeveloping industrial property for other uses requires due diligence to ensure that past exposures do not become future health hazards,” the report said.

LoBiondo wants the report to create greater awareness of the dangers of mercury, said Jason P. Galenes, his spokesman. The detailed report is available to the public on the toxic-substances agency’s Web site: It is also being disseminated to schools, public-health departments, community groups, and other agencies.

The study, which notes there is no way to arrive at a fixed number of cases because of the number of reporting agencies, includes recommendations on proper handling and cleaning of mercury spills.

“Mercury vapors are similar to the hazards of lead and asbestos,” said Galenes, explaining that people were unaware of the dangers of lead paint and asbestos for years, and that this led to the sickening of many children.

The report vividly illustrates the need to get the word out to children and teens. In Nevada, more than 850 middle school students were exposed to mercury in 2005 when a youth found a large quantity in a storage shed and brought it to school, where it was treated as a toy. The incident led to elevated mercury vapors in the school.

In another incident, teens stole up to 100 pounds of mercury from an abandoned neon-sign plant in Arkansas in 1999. Contamination was later found in 12 homes, a convenience store, and a school.

“If not managed properly, indoor mercury spills can release mercury into the air over weeks or even years,” the report said.

Even a broken thermometer can lead to problems if it is spilled indoors and is not properly cleaned up, according to the report. Vacuuming spreads the mercury and “increases the inhalational hazard,” the report says.

As mercury-filled thermometers are replaced by those that do not use mercury, this risk has decreased, the report says. But mercury can also be found in barometers, thermostats, fluorescent lightbulbs, electric switches, and natural-gas regulators.

The report also identified polyurethane flooring materials in school gymnasiums, especially when they wear out, as containing mercury. Mercury can also be misused in school biology laboratories and can be carried home on the boots of workers in manufacturing operations.

In one case, health officials learned that a 9-year-old boy who was hospitalized with respiratory problems had dismantled a blood-pressure monitor in his bedroom a few weeks earlier. The spill was still emitting vapors from his carpet.

In the Kiddie Kollege incident, beads of mercury were found in the floorboards 10 years after the factory closed. The building had been sold at a tax sale and converted into a day care. Inspectors said the vapors, a decade later, were 27 times an acceptable standard.

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