Authorities hunt children's trail of mercury sites

August 28, 1994|By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

BELLE GLADE, FLORIDA — BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- Emergency response teams continued yesterday to follow a long trail of mercury left by children, while crews wearing protective suits and respirators entered homes in the city's northeast side in search of the toxic metal.

Working out of a civic center-turned command post, officials said they were focusing first on reducing any health threat to residents by collecting small vials of mercury and loose amounts the metallic liquid, scattered around town by children.

The poisonous metal was passed from one child to another in the farming town after 9-year-old Joshua Adorno found about four pint jars of it in an abandoned van on Monday.

The van also contained old books, clothing and a military medal, Adorno said.

Police said they were still investigating how the elemental mercury, a silvery-white liquid, got into the van, which sat in overgrown shrubs behind a trailer home.

Two children, a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, have been hospitalized for possible mercury-related illnesses and were still under observation yesterday morning, said county Public Health Unit officials.

The mercury spill drew a large group of public health workers, state emergency response teams, Red Cross workers and federal Environmental Protection Agency hazardous materials experts to Belle Glade. However, the spill was nothing for the town to become unnerved about, said April Herrle, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman.

"This is a serious contamination situation; it's not a crisis," Herrle said.

By last night, Ms. Herrle said, response coordinators hoped to know enough about the more than 20 mercury-tainted sites in Belle Glade -- a town on the south rim of Lake Okeechobee, in the heart of sugar cane country -- "to give us a sense of the urgency and extent of [the problem]."

Residents were reacting well to the emergency and cooperating with health officials' requests to search homes thought to have mercury contamination, Police Lt. Jack Fulenwider said.

"There's no hysteria, no panic, but there is concern," he said.

Dangerous levels of organic mercury have been found in fresh-water fish in Florida. But the mercury found in Belle Glade is elemental mercury, an inorganic form not readily absorbed by the body if digested, said Dr. Jean Malecki, head of the Palm Beach County Public Health Unit.

The largest health risk to humans exposed to elemental mercury is inhalation of mercury vapors, which can cause respiratory and central nervous system problems.

Those most at risk are small children and pregnant women.

Because of the inhalation concern, two teams of health and environmental workers took battery-operated mercury vapor sensors into contaminated homes and other buildings yesterday.

Other response teams went into homes in which children had brought the liquid metal and vacuumed up loose amounts with special cleaning machines.

"It's hard to clean up without a vacuum," said Ed Fitzgerald, a DEP environmental manager from Orlando. "It's kind of like a slinky -- it oozes here and there."

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