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Arkansas Youths Puffed Mercury Cigs

January 13, 1998

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) _ Teen-agers who stole about 28 pounds of mercury from the city’s abandoned neon sign plant dipped cigarettes in the shiny, poisonous liquid and smoked them.

At least one teen was under a doctor’s care after admitting he inhaled a mercury-laced cigarette, said Dave Hall, Texarkana’s emergency management coordinator.

``We checked with the state Health Department, and that’s the absolute worse thing you can do with mercury _ smoke it and be exposed to the vapors,″ Hall said.

Headaches, vomiting blood and trouble swallowing are possible effects of smoking cigarettes tainted with mercury, which damages the central nervous system and can cause irreversible learning and speech disabilities.

Since Dec. 30, when a teen-ager was treated for possible mercury poisoning, emergency officials have been trying to trace the mercury that was taken in four or five half-pint jars from the old plant.

Hall said between 24-25 pounds of the substance has been recovered so far but that still leaves ``a fairly substantial amount of mercury out on the street.″

As of Monday, a fifth youth had been hospitalized and about 165 people had been tested for possible contamination, Hall said.

About 30 people had been recommended for medical testing because there were indications their clothes had been exposed to mercury.

Eight homes have been contaminated and 30 residents have been relocated, Hall said.

Two recent mercury exposures _ one at a junior high school and another at a convenience store _ that were first believed to be accidents are now seem to be ``deliberate acts of vandalism,″ Hall said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has sent a criminal investigator to Texarkana.

``Every day we have meetings and say it looks like we might be on the downside and something else comes up,″ Hall said.

The owner of the neon plant, which shut down in the 1970s, told police the break-in occurred before Dec. 16. Officials say the delay in symptoms was typical of gradual mercury exposure. The heavy metal accumulates in the body every time it’s handled.

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