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U.S. EPA and Clark County officials complete decontamination of Las Vegas property contaminated with mercury

Release Date: 2/12/2004
Contact Information: Mark Merchant, U.S. EPA, (415) 947-4297; Laura Gentile, U.S. EPA, (415) 947-4227; Jennifer Sizemore, Clark Co. Health, (702) 383-1225

LAS VEGAS -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Clark County Health District have completed decontaminating a home and yard heavily contaminated with mercury last month.

The contamination came to light on Jan. 10 when a youth living in the home on Saylor Way was hospitalized with severe mercury poisoning. EPA officials detected extremely high levels of mercury vapor in the home upon arriving the evening of Jan. 10 and also found mercury beads in the back yard and throughout the home. Mercury was later discovered outside the front of the home.

The EPA and its contractors spent approximately $175,000 on this response. Because of high levels of mercury vapor in the house, much of the interior was demolished; 80 yards of mercury contaminated debris were hauled to a hazardous waste landfill in Beatty.

Extensive mercury contamination also required the removal of the swimming pool from the back yard and the 8,000 gallons of mercury contaminated water it contained.

The family dog was also badly contaminated and the EPA spent two days shampooing and shaving her before she could be taken to a local veterinarian hospital for treatment. The dog is nearly fully recovered.

The victim told investigators that he got the mercury from his uncle in September and played with it inside and outside his home until November when his grandmother ordered him to throw it away. By then enough mercury beads had been spread in and around the home that the slow poisoning of the youth by the mercury vapors continued.

To determine the possible extent of contamination, and to ensure none of the mercury was taken from the victim’s property, the EPA and Clark County officials interviewed more than a dozen of the victim’s family and friends in Nevada and California and tested the victim’s school locker. In addition seven homes of neighborhood children that may have come in contact with the mercury were tested. No mercury contamination was found.

"Las Vegas first responders and Clark County officials acted very quickly in this case and, given the extent of contamination, very appropriately. Our partnership with them and with the state ensured a proper and timely cleanup," said Dan Meer, chief of the Emergency Response and Planning Branch at the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office in San Francisco. "This very unfortunate incident underscores the fact that mercury is a very pernicious substance and is something that should not be played with."

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that exists in a variety of forms. It is found in soil, water, rocks, and living organisms, and it can exist as a gas, a liquid, or a solid.

Mercury vaporizes just above room temperature, and the vapors of liquid mercury, which are readily absorbed by the lungs, can reach the brain. Mercury can also enter the body through the skin.

Levels of mercury can be measured in blood, urine and scalp hair. Although it can take months for mercury to be eliminated from the system, tests may be helpful in predicting and treating potential health effects. Exposure to high levels of elemental mercury vapor can result in nervous system damage including tremors, and mood and personality alterations. Exposure to relatively high levels of inorganic mercury salts can cause kidney damage. Long-term exposure to mercury can lead to organ failure and death.

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