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EPA Continues Cleanup of Mercury Contamination in Ciales, Puerto Rico; Agency Warns Against Handling Toxic Metal

Release Date: 01/10/2013
Contact Information: Geoffrey Garrison, 340-201-5328, garrison.geoffrey@epa.gov or Elias Rodriguez, 212-637-3664, rodriguez.elias@epa.gov

(New York, N.Y.) The U.S. Environmental Protection has removed mercury that contaminated several homes and schools in the Parcelas La Cordillera community of Ciales, Puerto Rico and completed the cleanup of the affected homes and schools. The EPA continues to work with the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board, Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health, Public Buildings Authority and the Department of Education on the extensive investigation and cleanup. Mercury is highly toxic and can harm the central nervous system, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.

Based on the EPA’s investigation and interviews with people in the community, it appears that children discovered the mercury around a public mailbox in the Parcelas La Cordillera community. They placed the mercury beads into pill bottles and baggies and inadvertently spread the toxic metal into nearby homes and schools. The mercury is believed to have come from a pint-sized glass bottle of unknown origin located near the public mailbox.

“Mercury is extremely dangerous and parents and teachers need to make sure children do not play with it,” said Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “Mercury can vaporize so easily that even a tiny amount can contaminate a large area. People should be extremely careful to avoid exposure to mercury. People in the community with information on the origin of the mercury release or who think they may have come into contact with mercury are encouraged to call the EPA at 787-241-6044 or 787-362-9309.”

On December 12, 2012, the EPA responded to a request from the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board to assist with a mercury spill at the Toribio Rivera Middle School in Ciales. During the course of its investigation, the EPA evaluated four schools, 43 homes, a church and a playground.

Toribio Rivera Middle School: The EPA tested for mercury in the Toribio Rivera Middle School and provided technical support to a contractor in assessing the contamination and monitoring contaminated areas. Impacted areas were identified for a potential cleanup and closed to students and faculty. Follow-up monitoring showed that levels of mercury at the school had diminished below levels established to protect health. Mercury vapors dissipate over time once the source is gone. No mercury beads were found at the school. Further action was not necessary at this site. The school has been approved to reopen and resume normal operations.

Juan Corretjer High School: The EPA tested for mercury at the Juan Corretjer High School and found elevated levels of mercury vapors in three areas of the school. The areas were isolated to prevent exposure and cleaned up. Samples were taken to confirm that the cleanup was successful and results showed that all readings are below levels of concern. The school has been approved to reopen and resume normal operations.

Cristobal Vicent Elementary School: The EPA tested for mercury at the Cristobal Vicent Elementary School and found that the school was not impacted.

Head Start Ciales School: The EPA tested for mercury at the Head Start Ciales School and found that the school was not impacted.

Other Impacted Areas: During the course of the EPA’s investigation, three homes and other areas were also found to have mercury contamination. At the three homes, the EPA cleaned up the mercury and air monitoring was conducted to ensure that the risk was addressed. Contaminated soil was dug up near one of the three homes and disposed of properly. Contaminated clothing and personal belongings were also removed and the families will be reimbursed for the loss of those items.

The EPA tracked the mercury to its source, a public mailbox near the Toribio Rivera Middle School. The mailbox and the surrounding area were cleaned up on January 3. Contaminated soil was removed and disposed of properly and the areas were refilled with clean soil. Work continues to ensure that any remaining pockets of mercury are identified and removed. The EPA expects to finish its work in the next few weeks.

The EPA and other agencies met with local elected officials in the community on December 13 to brief them on the situation. A public session was held on December 18 at the Parcelas La Cordillera’s community center to explain the situation to residents.

Background: Mercury, which is a silver liquid metal often found in old thermometers, barometers, thermostats, electrical switches and science labs. Mercury (popularly called "azogue") is an extremely toxic metal. Exposure to even relatively small amounts of mercury can cause serious health problems, especially in children.

Opening mercury containers allows mercury vapors to escape and be inhaled by people in the area. Pouring or spilling mercury is even more dangerous as the liquid can seep into floors, rugs and other surfaces and evaporates over time, exposing people to the toxic vapors. Mercury spills, which may occur in homes, schools, hospitals or anywhere, are difficult to remedy and cleaning them up with a vacuum cleaner or broom will spread the contamination and make matters worse. Anyone exposed to toxic elemental mercury is strongly urged to contact his or her doctor.
What to Do with a Mercury Spill:

Keep people away from mercury liquid to reduce exposure to vapors and to avoid further contamination by walking in, or through the liquid.

Wash with soap and water. Remove clothes that may have been exposed to mercury or mercury vapors and place them in a plastic bag for disposal.

What NOT 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.

For a Spanish language podcast about mercury, visit:
http://www.epa.gov/region02/mediacenter/podcast.html.

The EPA has a web page on how to handle mercury spills:
http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills or accessible in Spanish at http://www.epa.gov/mercury/about-espanol.htm.

Kids, check out EPA’s cool “Don’t Mess with Mercury Video,” visit:
http://www.epa.gov/mercury/index.html.

Follow EPA Region 2 on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/eparegion2 and visit our Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/eparegion2

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