Mercury scare in Brazoria County

June 24, 2008 2:54:53 PM PDT
More than a dozen people in Clute are being tested for exposure to liquid mercury. Authorities there are trying to clean up after six pounds of liquid mercury was spilled by a young boy playing in his grandmother's home earlier this month. Health officials say the boy showed the toxic chemical to a friend, who showed another friend.

In all, two homes and an apartment complex tested positive for mercury contamination and more than a dozen people are being checked for exposure.

Just days ago, children played in those Clute homes, handling the dangerous elements.

"This, the second house, the one the mercury was brought into later on, it did actually did have some traces of mercury in it, " said Clute Police Chief Mark Wicker. "It's an unacceptable amount."

Now, only men wearing protective blue suits and respirators are allowed inside. Their job is to test the air quality and determine the level of elemental mercury contamination.

"This house, which is where it originated and had the mercury in it, it's in the front bedroom," said Wicker.

The contamination happened nearly two weeks ago when a 12-year-old boy was visiting his grandmother. Inside the garage of her Clute home, he found two old containers that had mercury in them. The larger container was about half full.

"Just like a 14-ounce jar," said Wicker

Joy Jenkins, the boy's aunt, knew exactly how the jar looked. She grew up in the home and as a child, was oblivious to the danger and sometimes played with the silvery element.

"You'd forget about it and then would re-discover it and pour some in your palm and you could pass it back and forth," she said.

That's exactly what Jenkins said her nephew did after he realized the different things the mercury could do.

"Then the neighbor girls joined him and they all climbed through the bedroom window," said Jenkins. "They all played."

Later, the children brought the element to a third location, an apartment complex. By the time an adult saw what the kids had, 19 people were exposed, nine of them children.

The mercury was spilled in several locations in three homes. The home that had the most exposure was the home where the mercury was originally found.

As for the mercury itself, it had been in the home since the early 1960s. The family thinks the former family used it to make pottery.

Touching elemental mercury in its liquid form doesn't usually cause mercury poisoning. The biggest danger is in the form of vapor, which is easily absorbed by the lungs. Within a few hours of exposure, a person may start feeling symptoms, including chills, a metallic taste in the mouth, nausea, headaches and abdominal pain. You can find out more about elemental mercury here.

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