The Idaho Department of Environmentally Quality (DEQ) issued a statement Friday cautioning parents and schools on the dangers of certain types of jewelry that contain mercury, which is poisonous to humans. DEQ urges parents and school officials to dispose of items, such as toy jewelry and thermometers, which contain the harmful element. DEQ also asks schools to prepare for spills that could occur. The message to parents, however, fails to warn them about all the items in theirhomes, which could be potentially hazardous due to mercury.
The warning from DEQ focuses specifically on the toy jewelry, which the department says, can be broken or leak around the pendant's anchor. If mercury is released from the jewelry, even for a brief instant, there is a significant risk to health posed to anyone in the near vicinity. According to the department, "Even brief inhaling of mercury vapors can cause shortness of breath, chest pain and tightness, coughing, and increase in blood pressure or heart rate. High exposures can result in permanent brain or kidney damage."(View the full message from DEQ here)
DEQ asks school officials to prepare for mercury spills in schools by removing unsafe objects, like thermometers and blood pressure cuffs, from schools, and designating local firms that are properly trained in mercury contamination techniques to respond to school spills. The department wants schools to develop spill emergency plans, as well as purchase spill cleanup kits for school labs.
Joanne Pierce, spokesperson for DEQ, said that the warning comes in response to recent mercury-related incidents at Borah School in Boise and Shoshone High School in Shoshone. Pierce said that mercury spills have become increasingly more common in Idaho since 2004.
Mercury spills can close schools for several days while crews decontaminate affected areas. Both Borah and Shoshone high schools were closed for two days waiting for their campuses to be deemed safe by cleanup crews. Lake City High School, in Coeur D'Alene, also gave students two days off prior to spring break following a mercury spill of its own in 2006.
The message from DEQ fails to specifically mention compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which contain small amounts of mercury, in its message to parents. The use of the light bulbs in homes is becoming more prevalent as businesses and governments push them as a way to curb energy costs and lessen impacts on the environment. Pierce said that the department sees the light bulbs as a positive measure to help the environment because, overall, there is less mercury in CFLs than what is emitted into the air by power plants which burn coal. When asked if the bulbs contain some risk to consumers in their homes, Pierce said "certainly," but said the warning to parents intentionally ignored including CFLs because "we don't want people to freak out about them." She explained that people tend to over-report mercury spills they could otherwise handle themselves in their own homes and that she believes there needs to be a "good balance" in determining which spills necessitate reporting to local agencies.
Schools, unlike parents, are warned in the message from DEQ about the lights bulbs, which have been used in schools for years, though in a different form. Fluorescent light bulbs used in schools are typically longer and more tube-shaped, and are commonly installed out of reach of students. The department suggests that schools, because there is often no alternative to fluorescent bulbs in public buildings, "properly handle, store, and recycle them to prevent spills."
Pierce downplayed the risk of CFLs in homes in an interview with IdahoReporter.com. She said that "the amount in a CFL is about equal to the amount that would cover the tip of a pencil," though she did urge that citizens use "best practices" when handling any object that contains mercury - "including CFLs."