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EPA concludes emergency response following Agua Fria High School mercury spill

Release Date: 02/27/2009
Contact Information: : Margot Perez-Sullivan, 415.947.4149,

AVONDALE, Ariz. –Today, the Environmental Protection Agency completed emergency response activities following a February 12 mercury spill at Agua Fria High School.

The EPA’s Emergency Response program, which has expertise in mercury cleanups in schools and residences, was mobilized on February 13 after receiving notification of the spill, bringing specialized equipment that detects mercury vapors at low levels. Working in coordination with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA conducted mercury screenings and provided technical support to the Agua Fria Unified School District in assessing contamination in the school and the community and in monitoring decontaminated areas.

Over the past 11 days, students and staff in areas impacted by the spill brought personal belongings worn February 12 to the school for mercury screening. The belongings of approximately 450 students and staff were screened for mercury. Mercury screenings were also conducted at 66 homes of students and staff whose belongings were found to be contaminated with mercury at levels of concern.

Six of the assessed homes had moderate levels of mercury contamination, and three of the homes required more extensive remediation with two families temporarily relocating. All of the homes of concern have been decontaminated, and the families displaced by the removal returned to their homes February 24.

At the school, mercury contamination in all classrooms, locker rooms and outside areas and buses impacted by the spill has been cleaned up, although restoration of theses areas is not complete.

The Avondale Police Department is leading the ongoing investigation into February 12 spill. Following the completion of a response, federal law allows the EPA three years to investigate the cause of an incident and recover costs. The EPA’s priority has been identifying the nature and extent of the contamination and ensuring that a timely, appropriate response was completed to protect public health and the environment. The agency may investigate the cause of the release to identify parties potentially liable for EPA’s costs.

Background Information on Mercury

Elemental mercury is a shiny, silvery metal that is liquid at room temperature. It’s often found in thermometers, barometers, thermostats, electrical switches, and science labs. When dropped, it can break into smaller droplets that can migrate into cracks and crevices, and become attached to shoes, clothing or skin. Mercury can cause serious health effects, especially for young children, when its vapor is breathed.

Inhalation of mercury vapor is the primary route of exposure to elemental mercury. Inhaled vapor is almost completely absorbed by the lungs (75-80%). Neither liquid mercury nor mercury vapor has an odor and thus, chemical odor provides no warning of hazardous concentrations. Mercury vapor is heavier than air and may therefore accumulate in poorly ventilated or low-lying areas.

Mercury exposure can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. Symptoms can start within a few hours of exposure and could include weakness, chills, a metallic taste, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, tremors and visual disturbances. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness, irritability and mood changes, delirium, insomnia, loss of appetite and respiratory diseases.

Parents of children who may have been exposed to toxic elemental mercury are strongly urged to contact their medical provider so that their children can receive health screenings.

Emergency actions to take following a mercury spill

Keep people away from mercury liquid to reduce exposure to vapors and to avoid cross contamination by walking in, or through, the liquid.
Wash with soap and water. Remove clothes that have been contaminated and place them in a plastic bag for disposal.

What Never to Do with a Mercury Spill
Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.

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