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Chicago Residents Warned of Mercury

August 28, 2000

CHICAGO (AP) _ No more than two or three teaspoons of mercury accidentally spilled when contractors removed aging gas meter regulators from the basements of dozens of homes in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

It’s not that much, really. Nor is that kind of spill particularly uncommon, given the frequent use of elemental mercury in everything from thermometers and blood pressure gauges to older gas meters.

Still, health experts are cautioning homeowners _ particularly those with children _ to get the substance also known as ``quicksilver″ removed from their homes as soon as possible.

``I have three young children of my own. Absolutely I would be concerned,″ said Clyde Johnson, an environmental scientist at the City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College, where he and his colleagues are tracking the effects of mercury in New York homes and apartments.

Most health experts agree that short exposures to small amounts of mercury are relatively harmless _ for example, when a thermometer breaks, allowing beads of the silvery liquid metal to escape. In fact, research has shown little danger in swallowing it.

The trouble comes, they say, when the shiny, silver-white and odorless liquid vaporizes. That can happen, for example, when mercury spills are tracked onto carpets and dispersed by something like a vacuum cleaner.

``The important thing is to have it handled and cleaned up by a professional _ to look for hidden places where it has accumulated,″ said Ira Whitman, an environmental engineer from east Brunswick, N.J., and former official in the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. ``It has to be taken seriously.″

Because of its heaviness and moldable nature, Whitman said liquid mercury can find its way into cracks and crevices and even under floor boards.

That’s one reason Johnson says children are particularly at risk. He says he also has found that mercury tends to vaporize closer to the ground, particularly in winter when houses are less ventilated.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 158 tons of mercury is released into this country’s atmosphere each year, most of it because of combustible fuels, such as coal.

In the Chicago case, Nicor Gas has begun to inspect and clean up homes where workers from another company allegedly spilled mercury in basements while replacing outdated gas meters last year.

As of Friday, Nicor spokesman Lee Haines said the utility had identified about 170 homes in 11 suburbs north and west of Chicago as potentially at risk. Of those tested, mercury was found in at least 34, with some of the families having to be evacuated.

That led the company to announce Saturday that it would expand the number of homes to be tested to as many as 200,000.

Tom Schafer, a spokesman with the Illinois Department of Public Health, said dozens of people have called the department’s mercury hot line, but he said most have discovered that their homes do not have the kind of meter regulators that are causing problems.


On the Net:

Mercury Exposure Risks (Purdue University): http://danpatch.ecn.purdue.edu/(tilde)epados/mercury/pano/src/mercrisk.htm

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: http://www.ATSDR.cdc.gov/tfacts46.html

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