Crews check for mercury at SEMO

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A broken thermometer elicited a serious response from Missouri's Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday.

Both agencies descended on a Southeast Missouri State University classroom to check the air quality.

John Kraemer, a professor in Southeast's biology department and the chemical hygiene officer, said the spill was discovered in room 214 of Magill Hall by construction workers.

"They were removing some cabinetry," he said, characterizing the amount of mercury as "a very small amount, a couple of grams."

Kraemer said he got a call at 9:45 a.m. Dec. 18.

"I cleaned it that day. I absorbed the material up and double bagged it for disposal," he said.

Asked if he wore a Hazmat suit, he laughed. "I wore gloves. ... I heard that someone called and said we had a big spill."

He said the DNR and EPA officials spent 90 minutes in room 214 on Wednesday, using a mercury vapor monitor.

"They didn't find anything above a level that was a risk," he said.

DNR spokesman Larry Archer said the air samples showed 350 to 400 nanograms per cubic meter -- far less than the 3,000 nanograms the EPA considers dangerous. A nanogram is one-billionth of a gram.

Mercury is toxic when inhaled.

Short-term exposure to high levels of mercury vapors may cause lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, as well as increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes and eye irritation.

Archer said the DNR's Environmental Emergency Response section learned of the spill Dec. 28 when a university official reported it.

"But not knowing the amount, then we're going to err on the side of 'Let's put more resources into it than less' until we find out," he said.

"We don't typically consider any mercury cleanup to be a little deal."

When properly cleaned, a mercury spill "doesn't have any residual health effects," Archer said.

Students where not on campus when the broken thermometer was discovered, Kraemer said.

They will return to classes Jan. 14.

335-6611, extension 127

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