Mercury response questioned

Workers complain about contamination clean-up efforts

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Sep. 27, 2005 


Members of the IU worker's union are questioning the Office of Environmental Health and Safety Management's ability to respond quickly and effectively to hazards at IU, such as a recent incident which exposed workers to mercury vapors.

On July 19, two plumbers were exposed to vaporized mercury after cutting a drainpipe with a rotary grinder in Kirkwood Hall 212. The mercury had likely been sitting in the pipe since the 1950s, when the building was used as a science lab, according to the OEHSM, which spearheaded the cleanup. Members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees were upset after the plumbers showed elevated levels of mercury. They said OEHSM should have been more proactive in locating such hidden dangers and informing workers about them ahead of time.

"It think it was a fairly bumbling response to a fairly serious problem," said Randy Pardue, a member of the executive board for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Local 832.

Mercury can affect the central nervous system when dangerous amounts are inhaled, ingested or contact the skin, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

According to the ATSDR's Web site, "Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetus."

After two months and medical treatment, one of the workers is still affected by the poisoning, said Dallas Murphy, local president of AFSME.

"One's doing alright, the other's not doing really well," Murphy said. "He's having trouble with memory and still gets the shakes a lot."

Murphy said the worker has also been missing some work.

The day of the incident, the plumbers were sent home wearing the clothes they had worn when exposed to mercury vapors.

Mike Jenson, associate director of OEHSM, said his office was not aware of the severity of exposure until after the workers had been sent home.

"Our response team sent the workers in for medical surveillance as a precaution, but there was no visible contamination on them," he said. "It was not until their test results came in several days later that it became apparent that they had a significant exposure."

On Aug. 16, a month later, members of the Office of Development and Alumni Programs in Kirkwood Hall were advised not to come to work that day. The office, which is directly across the hall from the initial spill, was undergoing a cleanup by the OEHSM after more mercury had been discovered.

Jenson said his office responded to reports that plumbing work had been performed above the ceiling of the Office of Development and Alumni Programs.

"We investigated and found a small amount of mercury on the carpet and a few beads on some furniture," he said.

Jenson said the decision to send home office staff was just a precaution, and no dangerous level of mercury was detected in the air. He said his team did not generate any reports documenting the Aug. 15 to 16 cleanup.

Furniture was moved out of the office, and the carpet was removed, according to witnesses in the office. Before the cleanup, the custodial staff had vacuumed the carpet, unaware it contained mercury.

"I was told by members of the custodial staff that they vacuumed the carpet of the office where mercury was found," Jenson said. "A short time after the carpet removal, we checked the bags on a number of vacuum cleaners and found one with some mercury vapor in it. OEHSM has the vacuum itself and we are still in the process of testing it, so we have not made a decision on whether it is necessary to dispose of it or not -- if it does need to be disposed of our office will make the necessary arrangements."

Jody Smith, one of the building managers for Kirkwood Hall, said she didn't recall OEHSM offering an official announcement that the building was safe, and no one in her workspace, located below the initial spill, had been offered to be tested.

Since no one had told her otherwise, Smith said she assumed everything was OK.

Jenson met with members of the Kirkwood Hall staff from the College of Arts and Sciences Office and the Office of Development and Alumni Programs, at which point they were offered the option of testing. The people who worked with Smith in the Graduate Studies Office were somehow out of the loop, Smith said.

"I feel that oftentimes, all the departments don't communicate to each other, like who's doing what," Smith said.

Jenson said OEHSM did not find the mercury levels to be a threat, so he found no reason to offer mercury testing to each individual in the building.

"The results of our testing indicate that the office did not contain dangerous levels of mercury vapor at any time. When it became apparent in September that some members of the staff were uncomfortable with the situation, we offered testing to them in order to set their minds at ease."

A lack of communication is one of the issues which contributed to the initial spill, Murphy said. He suggested OEHSM build a database that lists all the potential hazards of each building, going back into its entire history so workers could be more prepared.

Murphy said since the incident, communication has improved between OEHSM and the workers. But he's concerned OEHSM faces some barriers when it tries to actively inform people about hazards on campus.

"I feel that they are being held back from being proactive. A lot of times they're told to turn their head the other way. I strongly feel that that's what's going on out there," Murphy said.


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