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Pool of mercury found at a Cypress Villas apartment

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Posted: July 2, 2008 9:24 p.m.
Updated: July 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    No one seems to have any answers regarding a large pool of mercury found late Tuesday at a Cypress Villas apartment.
    The man moving into the apartment Tuesday changed his mind when he discovered a large pool of spilled mercury on the back porch.
    Justin Howard had just rented the apartment and was settling his dogs into the back yard when he made the disturbing discovery.
    "It was a pool of liquid silver metal," he said. "I have absolutely no idea whatsoever" where it came from.
    Neither do local, state or federal officials.
    Howard and his friend Jonas March headed straight for the Statesboro Fire Department to report the find, and around 7:40 p.m., fire officials responded to the scene.
    After testing the substance, which tested positive for mercury, fire department agents made a call and turned the investigation over to the Environmental Protection Division, said Statesboro Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield.
    The amount was reported to be about a pint, he said, but EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said it was more like a half cup. Still, the spill is considered unusually large, he said.
    Merrifield said the pooled liquid was "silver in color, and beads up. You can move it around and it beads together — there was a big glob of it."
    Mercury, a heavy metal, is dangerous in that it can cause severe health problems, including death, if it accumulates in the body. Even in small amounts, it can pose a danger.
    It is dangerous when inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
    This is at least the third mercury spill reported in Southeastern Georgia over the past few weeks. June 16, the Kidney Associates of Savannah was evacuated for several days after a patient broke a blood pressure cuff, spilling the liquid metal. A week earlier, a student brought mercury from a chemistry set to Pooler Elementary, causing evacuation and extensive testing of vehicles, students backpacks and more, according to reports.
    Late Wednesday, federal agents from the Environmental Protection Agency were still investigating the spill in Statesboro. Chambers said he had no idea where the mercury could have come from.
    "They are trying to determine where it came from," he said. "I couldn't even speculate."
    "It's one of the big questions," Merrifield said. "Where did  this come from?"
    Bulloch County Sheriff's Chief Investigator Capt. Todd Hutchens said deputies, including Inv. Jason Long, responded to the scene, but mainly just filed a report, leaving the investigation to federal agents.
    "We have no idea where the stuff came from," he said. "It is kind of odd how it got there."
    
Mystery mercury
    "It is a significant amount of mercury," Merrifield said. "There are a lot of questions that weren't answered (as of Wednesday evening)."
    "It is very much still under investigation," Chambers said. Agents were monitoring the area, including the air, for further mercury contamination. Any mercury will be cleaned up by contractors using special devices, he said.
    Georgia Southern University's Dr. Laura Frost was equally puzzled by the large amount of mercury found.
    "You'd have to go buy a bunch of thermometers and break them open," she said.
    Mercury is fund in thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, barometers and float valves, among other things. If someone had an old float valve or an older barometer — "50, 75, to 100 years old," those things could contain a significant amount of the dangerous metal, she said.
    It is not illegal to possess mercury, but there are laws regarding the disposal and handling of spills, Chambers said. If the person responsible knowingly spilled the mercury and did not report it or address the problem, penalties could be imposed, he said. However, that would be the responsibility of local law enforcement, as the "EPD is not a police agency."
    According to Internet Web site www.epa.gov, "Any time one pound or more of mercury is released to the environment, it is mandatory to call the National Response Center ... mercury is heavy, only two tablespoons of mercury weigh about one pound."
    The amount of mercury found at the apartment was significantly more than two tablespoons.
    "It was a two foot diameter pool," March said.
    Howard is moving elsewhere.
    "I'm not living there anymore," he said Wednesday evening. "I'm not worried about it — let them clean it up, let them deal with it."
    Mercury poisoning can cause a variety of health problems including chronic fatigue, excessive sleeping, muscular weakness, memory loss, irritability and nightmares, dizziness, vision problems, high blood pressure, digestive issues, dry itchy skin and a metallic taste in the mouth, according to the EPA Web site.
    Mercury is also expensive. Frost said chemical companies do not usually sell to individuals, but to other companies or institutions such as a university. Georgia Southern University does not have mercury on hand, she said.
    According to Internet Web site  www.elementsales.com., a two-gram ampule of mercury in a sealed container is available for $25.
   
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