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Man Spills Two Pounds Of Mercury In Midtown Apartment, Prompting Evacuation

Liquid mercury is highly toxic and can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems.
Liquid mercury is highly toxic and can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems. Photo by Ahmad Riyazi Mohamed
A HazMat team with the Houston Fire Department inspected a Midtown apartment complex after a man reported spilling two pounds of mercury in his home — three days after the accident occurred.

Firefighters evacuated the fifth floor of Mid Main Lofts, an apartment complex at 3550 Main, after the man reported the spill at about 10:30 Monday morning, according to a press release from the Houston Fire Department.

The man told officials at the scene that he spilled the liquid mercury, a potentially toxic element, Friday night, according to Sheldra Brigham, a spokeswoman for the Houston Fire Department. He had brought the mercury from his last apartment and was storing the liquid in a Crown Royal bottle. When his girlfriend grabbed the bottle on Friday, she was surprised by the weight of the bottle and dropped it on the floor, where it smashed. Mercury has a much higher density level than other liquids. Two tablespoons of the liquid form weighs about 1 pound.

The man initially cleaned up the spill using a bottle dropper and other tools, but then threw those contaminated materials down the trash chute. He called the Fire Department Monday to report what happened.

Firefighters tested the trash chute and the hallway for mercury levels which were low, but “significant enough” to evacuate the floor.

Brighham wouldn’t speculate as to why the man had so much mercury. She said he “wasn’t very forthcoming” to firefighters about why he had it in the first place. Mercury used to be found in everyday items like thermometers, batteries and some light bulbs, but isn't anymore due to safety concerns.

The Houston Health Department is responsible for handling the situation now, Brigham said, and will monitor the building for the next 10 days.

Exposure to small amounts of mercury is considered highly dangerous, especially for small children, and has toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems. Some studies have even linked prolonged exposure to Parkinson’s Disease and forms of cancer. Liquid mercury is particularly dangerous because as it reaches room temperature, the element begins to vaporize, allowing it to enter the lungs, bloodstream and brain.

Most regulatory agencies measure mercury exposure by air. Acceptable mercury exposure in any workplace is considered 0.1 milligram per cubic meter over an eight-hour period, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Most instructions on cleaning mercury focus on small spills from thermometers. Anything more than about two tablespoons should be handled by professional cleanup crews. The Environmental Protection Agency even has a national hot line for spills more than 1 pound.

For small spills, safety organizations stress to never sweep or vacuum mercury as it will ultimately spread the element into the air and increase exposure. Never pour mercury down a drain as it may lodge in plumbing and cause future problems. And never walk around if your shoes might have been contaminated by the substance.
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.