SEATTLE,WASH.-The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has completed an emergency cleanup of elemental mercury at a residential home in the South 15th Ave. and Nob Hill neighborhood of Yakima, Washington. EPA worked closely with Yakima Health District and the Washington State Department of Ecology to complete the cleanup and ensure that public health and the environment were not harmed.
On March 19, the Washington State Department of Ecology received a call from a concerned citizen about an elemental mercury spill at a home in the neighborhood. The citizen had observed children at the home playing with mercury. A tenant of the home confirmed that the children had found mercury in a small vial and had been playing with it for two months. In addition, the tenant had used a broom to sweep up mercury in the driveway. This is the third such mercury exposure reported in the Yakima area in recent years.
“The citizen who reported this mercury and stopped the children’s exposure is a hero,” said Dr. Chris Spitters at the Yakima Health District. “Mercury poisoning can have serious and permanent effects on the brain, especially in children. We worked with the affected families and with their health care providers to ensure that all the exposed children and adults received a proper medical evaluation.”
Mercury is a highly toxic substance that builds up in human body tissue. In young children, exposure to mercury can lead to learning disabilities and damage to the nervous system. In adults, exposure may cause cardiovascular and central nervous system problems. Mercury can be especially harmful if its fumes are inhaled. Vacuuming or sweeping mercury spreads it into the air and into smaller droplets, contaminating the home and the vacuum or broom.
EPA recovered about four fluid ounces of mercury from the home. Air monitoring indicated mercury measurements up to 50 times higher than safe occupancy levels. The contamination required disposal of the washer, dryer, clothing, bedding, and carpet. In addition, EPA excavated soil where the children played with mercury. EPA cleanup costs for residential mercury contamination have ranged from $100,000-$400,000.
“Once you have mercury contamination, cleanup is expensive and difficult because the mercury spreads easily from room to room, as was the case at this property,” said Jeff Fowlow, EPA On-Scene Coordinator. “We urge anyone who finds mercury stored in their home to contact the Yakima County Hazardous Waste program at (509) 574-2450. Correct handling and disposal will avoid an unfortunate incident like this, which was difficult for the family and resulted in a lot of belongings that had to be disposed.”
Metallic mercury appears as a thick, silver colored liquid that forms small drops or beads and breaks into smaller pieces easily. This and other mercury-containing products should be handled with extreme care and carefully transported to a household waste facility. Spills should be reported immediately to the Department of Ecology regional office closest to you or 1-800-258-5990. For health concerns related to mercury spills, contact your health care provider or the Yakima Health District at 509-249-6508.