[IWAR] US mercury contamination

From: Michael Wilson (MWILSON/0005514706at_private)
Date: Sat Jan 10 1998 - 22:40:55 PST

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                     Teen-agers' theft spread mercury contamination
          Copyright ) 1998 Nando.net
          Copyright ) 1998 The Associated Press
       TEXARKANA, Ark. (January 10, 1998 09:55 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net)
       -- A simple break-in at an abandoned neon plant has set this city on
       edge. What was stolen was mercury, a poison that's now popping up all
       over the place.
       More than four dozen people may have been exposed to dangerous levels of
       the element, and two needed emergency treatment. Seven homes have been
       evacuated, their contents carted off in plastic bags to a
       decontamination center.
       Part of a junior high school was sealed off Friday when mercury was
       found on a science room floor.
       "Every day we turn up more," said Dave Hall, Texarkana's emergency
       services coordinator.
       Two teen-agers broke into the old plant in a working-class neighborhood
       last month. They found about 2 1/2 pints of metallic mercury, weighing
       between 23 and 25 pounds. Fascinated, they shared it with friends.
       "They said it just looked cool," Hall said. "They poured the containers
       into a fish aquarium and played with it sticking their arms in it and
       dipping two or three watches in it."
       The teen-agers, who weren't identified, didn't understand the danger.
       "It's very enticing. It looks neat and people think it's harmless and
       want to play with it, but it can be very nasty," said Donna Garland, a
       spokeswoman for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in
       Mercury damages the central nervous system and can cause irreversible
       learning and speech disabilities.
       Since Dec. 30, when one of the teen-agers who took part in the break-in
       was treated for possible mercury poisoning, emergency officials have
       been trying to trace the metal. Alarmed parents call every few days.
       It keeps turning up around town.
       A vial of mercury carried by a teen-ager broke inside a combination
       grocery store-sandwich shop last week. Emergency workers found out
       Thursday and closed the store.
       City emergency workers on Friday confiscated two pairs of shoes from
       students at College Hill Junior High that were contaminated with
       mercury. They sealed off the room and part of a hallway.
       Authorities considered the grocery store and school incidents as acts of
       Police recovered 21 pounds of stolen mercury at one boy's house and
       picked up much of the remainder from other youths, Hall said. Emergency
       officials had feared the children had thrown it out.
       At Garland City, about 15 miles from Texarkana, someone apparently
       poured some mercury out of a moving car just to get rid of it.
       Mercury, or quicksilver, has long fascinated people because of its
       wondrous properties. Some mercury compounds are deadly in minuscule
       amounts; other forms -- such as the regular, elemental variety stolen in
       Texarkana -- are less toxic.
       Mercury can cause tremors, insomnia, memory loss, headaches, vision
       problems, irritability and nervousness. Poisoning is treated by adding
       other chemicals to the bloodstream that bond with the mercury and remove
       it from the body as waste.
       The owner of the neon plant, which shut down in the 1970s, told police
       the break-in occurred before Dec. 16. Ms. Garland said the delay in
       symptoms is typical of gradual mercury exposure; the heavy metal
       accumulates in the body every time it's handled.
       The mercury was in four or five half-pint jars when it was stolen. From
       there, the kids apparently divided it up among their friends, who put it
       in all sorts of household jars and other containers.
       The theft came to light when one of the boys who took part fell ill. The
       mother of one of the youths also got sick. No names were released.
       Richard Persons said his son, Raymond, and another boy found about
       two-thirds of a test tube containing mercury.
       "As a child, I played with mercury myself," he said. "We played with it
       at school or we'd bust a thermometer just to play with the mercury
       inside. But I took it away from him and had him scrub up."
       -- By KELLY P. KISSEL, The Associated Press

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