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Published: Friday, 8/13/2004

Mercury found at local facility

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Emergency personnel remove a boy's shoes after testing him for mercury at the Aurora Gonzalez Center. Emergency personnel remove a boy's shoes after testing him for mercury at the Aurora Gonzalez Center.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Eighty-eight people, most of them children, were checked for mercury contamination yesterday after the liquid metal was found on the floor in a storage area at the Aurora Gonzalez Center in South Toledo.

Fifteen people had traces of mercury on their shoes or clothes, which were taken and will be destroyed. Those children and adults were given paper shoes, and one girl was given a paper suit to wear home from the South Avenue center.

Investigators are trying to determine how and when the mercury spilled and spread, the extent of the contamination, and how long the cleanup will last.

The mercury was found in a storage area of a former medical clinic under renovation at the center.

Fire Chief Mike Bell said it could have come from something related to the former clinic. Initial discussions were that it came from a blood pressure cuff.

"I can't say it's from one thing. We're still trying to investigate," Chief Bell said. "We don't know how it got on their shoes, but it is there."

The mercury was found by Neighborhood Health Association maintenance workers behind an empty, open metal bookcase they were moving from the storage area about 11:20 a.m., said Doni Miller, NHA's chief executive officer.

She said NHA manages the building, which is owned by the city and also houses a Boys & Girls Club and a senior center.

Seventy to 75 children were at the youth club when the building was evacuated, said Dave Wehrmeister, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Toledo. Also exposed were staff at the club, a few senior citizens, and the maintenance workers.

Once evacuated, they stood on an large plastic tarp in front of the building, where a meter was used to check for mercury on their hands and the soles of their shoes. They then washed their hands with baby wipes.

The mercury was found in a room of the former NHA medical clinic, which had been closed about 18 months ago and moved to larger quarters.

NHA recently decided to return to Aurora Gonzalez Center to open a pediatric clinic. Employees of NHA who noticed the mercury also removed more than a half-dozen boxes containing mostly old office materials from the clinic last Friday in preparation for the remodeling.

A possible explanation for the spread of the mercury is that employees moving the boxes from the room last week tracked it to a common area of the center where the 15 children and staff could come in contact with it, Chief Bell said.

Children haven't been in the clinic office area, Ms. Miller said. The boxes have been located and properly handled by a contractor hired to handle the cleanup, she said.

Larry Vasko, deputy health commissioner for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said officials were being cautious and looked for very low levels of mercury on those exposed. Though no one showed symptoms of illness, health officials will monitor them for long-term effects.

Officials are encouraging all 88 people to return to the center at 11 a.m. today for a presentation on mercury and its potential health effects, such as neurological damage, coordinated by the health department. A tent will be set up outside the building, which is closed.

Mike Gerber, an emergency response coordinator with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said when a mercury droplet spreads, some of the beads are so small they can't be seen by the naked eye. The vapors then can become airborne.

Mr. Vasko said mercury poisoning symptoms include coughing, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. If those exposed show any of these signs, they should go to the emergency room.

It's unknown when the building will reopen. A new pediatric center, to be housed in the former clinic, was to open in four weeks. Ms. Miller hopes the pediatric center will open in 30 to 60 days.

Kellie Santibanez, who was picking up her daughters, ages 7 and 8, and her 7-year-old nephew, said she never thought anything like this could happen.

"I'm just glad they're all right so I can take them home and let them be safe," she said.

The Greater Toledo Chapter of the American Red Cross will provide shoes and clothes on an as-needed basis to those who had theirs taken.

Contact Christina Hall at

chall@theblade.com

or 419-724-6007.



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