We analyzed data from states that participated in the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system maintained by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to describe the public health consequences of mercury releases. From 1993 through 1998, HSEES captured 406 events in which mercury was the only substance released. Schools and universities, private residences, and health care facilities were the most frequent locations involved in mercury events, and human error was the contributing factor for most of the releases. Fourteen persons experienced adverse health effects as a result of the releases. An additional 31 persons had documented elevated levels of mercury in the blood. No fatalities resulted. Evacuations were ordered in 90 (22%) of the events, and the length of evacuation ranged from 1 hr to 46 days. Mercury spills have a significant public health impact and economic burden. Some actions that could potentially lessen the consequences of mercury spills are to switch to mercury-free alternatives, train people in the safe handling and disposal of mercury, and keep mercury securely stored when it is necessary to have it on hand. Key words. acute exposure, chemical spills, hazardous substances, mercury, surveillance. Environ Health Perspect 110:129-132 (2002). [Online 10 January 2001]
With increased media reporting of mercury spills has come increased awareness of and interest in preventing spills and their associated public health impact (1-6). Preventing mercury spills will help lessen the total amount of mercury available to bioaccumulate in the environment. We analyzed data from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system to describe mercury releases and their adverse public health consequences in participating states.
Mercury is commonly found in high school and university laboratories, health care facilities, and old industrial sites, as well as in the home (6-8). Products containing mercury include thermometers, thermostats, batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, dental amalgams, blood pressure devices, reagents, electrical equipment, and switches (8-10). Mercury exists in several forms, but these can be grouped into three major categories: metallic mercury, inorganic mercury, and organic mercury. Metallic mercury, also known as elemental mercury, is the shiny, silver-white metallic liquid found in thermometers (9). Because spills generally involve the release of metallic mercury, we focus here on metallic mercury, hereafter referred to simply as mercury.
Exposure to mercury can occur through inhalation, dermal absorption, or ingestion (8); however, it is absorbed well only via inhalation (9). Acute exposure can cause respiratory symptoms (cough, burning sensation in the lungs), gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, metallic taste in the mouth), increased blood pressure and heart rate, skin rashes, eye irritation, and fever (7,9,11). Acute exposure to extremely high levels of mercury can affect the kidneys and developing fetuses. Additionally, inhalation of sufficiently high concentrations of mercury can be fatal. Children and pregnant women are especially sensitive to mercury exposure (9).
Since 1990, the ATSDR has maintained an active, state-based surveillance system to collect and analyze information on hazardous substances emergency events. The pilot phase of the surveillance system took place from 1 January 1990 through 31 December 1992. We analyzed data from 1993-1998, the most recent time period for which complete data are available. Ten states participated in HSEES for the entire time period: Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. An additional four states participated during portions of the time period: Minnesota (1995-1998), Missouri (1994-1998), …