The investigation ultimately determined that five families involving 25 people (including 16 children) had mercury releases in five residences after children brought home containers of mercury they had found in an unsecured nearby junkyard. On September 10, 2004, the COA DPH interviewed all five families. In consultation with the Texas Department of Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one pregnant adult and all 11 children younger than age 13 were examined and tested for mercury intoxication. No mercury toxicity was detected in the pregnant woman or any of the children. Minimal levels of mercury were detected in timed urinary collections from four of the children. These children were subsequently followed over the next six months at the COA DPH. No evidence of mercury toxicity was found in any of the children on follow-up evaluation six months later.
An EPA Emergency Response Removal Services contractor collected free mercury from the floors of these homes and removed personal belongings and furniture from the houses. After the houses were emptied of contaminated furniture, decontamination of carpets, floors, and walls continued. Decontamination efforts in a fifth home were limited to the disposal of mercury-contaminated items (i.e., mop, shoes, clothing). After decontamination efforts, all homes met cleanup criteria of mercury less than 1 μg/m3. These homes were restored to a livable condition after analytical sample results confirmed that the homes were below EPA cleanup criteria (<1 μg/m3). The remediation effort took more than six weeks. The cost, approximately $445,000, was paid from federal funds.
Three times during this process, the Department of Environmental Health held press conferences involving multiple agencies, and emphasized potential adverse health effects of elementary mercury. Given the public interest in the story, the amount of mercury involved in this episode, and the fact that our local voluntary industrial recycling program had garnered little public attention and participation in the past, the Department of Environmental Health Director discussed the possibility of a well-publicized voluntary mercury surrender program with EPA officials. The EPA agreed to assist with disposal of mercury collected during such a program. The local fire department agreed to organize and sponsor the effort, and the local media agreed to advertise it. Citizens were encouraged to voluntarily turn in elementary mercury (i.e., mercury-containing thermometers and any containers holding liquid mercury) to neighborhood fire departments.
Over the next six weeks, nearly 40 citizens voluntarily surrendered elemental mercury that had been in their possession, including some thermometers, but mostly jars, cans, and other containers holding various quantities of liquid mercury. Many of these citizens had possessed the mercury for years. Ultimately, this public education campaign and recycling effort resulted in the voluntary surrender of 620 pounds of elemental mercury.