Administration from the Calexico High School in California learned on January 30, 2009, that some students accidently spilled about two teaspoons of mercury in a classroom. The school has about 2,200 students and nearly 100 faculty and staff. If you were calling the shots, how would you address this small spill of mercury? Again, we’re only talking about two teaspoons of a chemical.

If you run an online search you will see what was done and in some respects may be ongoing now. Experts were called in, the entire school was closed, and news announcements including those from the health department and EPA included the following: “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.”

The action level for mercury at Calexico High School was established by the experts at 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt). Let’s put this level into perspective: one ppt is about one second in 32,000 years. Digest this concept before you go on.

Because mercury can bead into microscopic size and adhere into the slightest crack or crevice, it can easily be tracked on shoes and other items and be readily spread about. The Lumex meter went to work and mercury was detected in various areas throughout the school.

I know I could take the Lumex meter and measure trace concentrations of mercury from inside the mouths of people who may have silver dental fillings. When a school gets new replacement computers, let me throw one in a chamber and heat it up and I can probably coax mercury from the device. Break a fluorescent light bulb and I will find you mercury. Mercury may be easy to find when you know where to look.

But there is a bigger picture to consider.

From an insurance company’s viewpoint it is better to pay a few million dollars now than possibly hundreds of millions dollars later if parents claim their children were harmed by mercury. And I can understand why owners and administration of a private school in particular can calmly accept that insurance company’s position. As a private school they depend upon their reputation to maintain student enrollment. Nothing less than a complete cleanup of mercury would satisfy some parents.

Mercury restrictions

The events above are not unique and are likely to become more commonplace in the future. Lisa Jackson, who now leads the EPA, understands the perception of mercury all too well. When she headed up the EPA in New Jersey, an abandoned thermometer manufacturing plant somehow was allowed to be converted into a daycare center called “Kiddie Kollege.” A class action lawsuit filed by the parents of the children who attended the center is ongoing. Because of this event, New Jersey recently drafted legislation to make owners of property subject to criminal actions if they knowingly expose children to toxic chemicals such as mercury.

Mercury is now under scrutiny from many corners. In October 2008, President Bush signed into law the Mercury Export Ban that was championed by Barack Obama. Timing coincidence or not, in November 2008, the EPA made a prioritization decision and established mercury as a “HIGH PRIORITY, SPECIAL CONCERN,” meaning the agency feels the chemical warrants special attention and greater regulatory control. Restrictions or bans on mercury use at worksites in the future seem probable.

Be proactive?

What if your worksite has a thermostat affixed to the wall in remote area of a warehouse that contains a bead of mercury, is it a big deal or not? If the glass bead breaks, would you use a Lumex to find where the mercury went, or just assume it’s gone? Clearly, public health precautions and OSHA requirements are miles apart; but perception of mercury health risk may be narrowing.

Your company should rank where mercury identification and control fits into management prioritization. As an EHS pro, you should bring this issue up for discussion and subsequent management decisions. It may not be appropriate for management to come to you first.

Your worksite may have just a little bit of mercury, but a little bit today may mean a lot. To avoid getting caught up in things that may blow out of proportion, now may be the time to establish a program to assure that your workplace is mercury-free.