Mercury-tainted home is a family’s nightmare

Mother worries about children’s exposure to toxic vapor.


SPRINGFIELD — There aren’t many certainties in Kheesha Moore’s life right now.

She doesn’t yet know how much mercury made it into her body or the bodies of her kids, having lived in a heavily contaminated home for about three months.

And she doesn’t know whether she will be able to keep the ashes of two of her children, which are in the house. Anything with a surface that can absorb a microscopic vapor will have to be trashed or treated with a destructive chemical.

Moore can’t think of a better word to describe the situation than “nightmare.” She and her family were evacuated from their home on June 22 after learning they had been living in levels of mercury vapor 3 to 30 times the limit considered safe.

On Monday, the Moore family’s clothes were bagged in black plastic on the front lawn, heating in the sun to test the vapor they release. Some bags tested higher than 100 times the safe limit.

The landlords, a North Carolina couple, are financially responsible for cleaning the house — a process that costs tens of thousands of dollars. John and Carole Sandor are paying for their tenants’ lodging and food through the ordeal, and have said they will help with the expense of lost property, as the Moores have no renters insurance.

Ohio EPA responds to all reports of mercury spills in the state, from fever thermometers to abandoned industrial storage. Spills have been on a steady decline the past several years, from 185 in 2006 to 67 in 2010. Just over 30 reports — and the emergency responses that correspond to them — have been reported so far in 2011.

Heather Lauer, spokeswoman for Ohio EPA, attributes the decline to education, specifically at the local level. It’s tough, Lauer said, to battle a perception from an older generation that mercury isn’t that harmful.

“Over the years, things have changed,” she said. “Who knows what we’re doing right now that we’ll look back on and say, ‘I can’t believe we did that!’ because it was a good idea at the time.”

Anne Kaup-Fett works for Clark County’s health district, and responds to mercury calls herself, including the Moores’, at 317 East Cassily Avenue in Springfield.

At the Moores’ house, she said, “The hot-water heater pipes acted like little smokestacks.” The pipes were cut off where the mercury-switch boiler sat in the basement, and they led into every room.

Normally, water-based heating is a closed system. But in the Moores’ house, Kaup-Fett described, radiators had been removed and the pipes leading to them were left open.

“So this is an extremely rare situation,” she said. “People shouldn’t be alarmed.”

But if previous tenants of the 1919 home had known to look out for the mercury switches — and understood the danger if they break — the Moore family wouldn’t be in its current situation.

To that end, Kaup-Fett works with a free local program to take back any mercury or mercury-containing items from the public. You can contact the health district about the program or to ask if a certain item contains mercury by calling (937) 390-5600 or even e-mailing a picture of the suspicious item to health@ccchd.com.

Items that often contain mercury include thermostats (especially the round Honeywell ones), barometers attached to walls and old blood pressure cuffs. Decades ago, some people collected mercury and kept it in jars, often in garages.

If you’re at all afraid of spilling the mercury as you try to remove it from your home, call the health district, Kaup-Fett said. Carpet and sometimes even wood flooring with cracks has to be removed under where a spill occurs. Better to have a professional remove a mercury device to prevent that cost, she said.

The Ohio Department of Health recommends that even with small spills like thermometers, never use a broom or a vacuum cleaner to clean it up. And never wash mercury-soiled items in a washing machine.

ODH suggests you turn off a ventilation system, close interior doors to seal the spill and open exterior windows and doors. The Ohio EPA maintains a spill hot line at (800) 282-9378.

Monday around 4 p.m., Moore was invited back to her home. Its windows were all opened and sported white box fans venting mercury vapor to the outside.

The caution tape surrounding the yard tipped off neighbors, who came over to ask whether they were safe from the vapors. Health department officials said they were.

After late nights reading mercury fact sheets printed from her hotel computer, Moore knows the dangers of exposure to the metal. Yet, when confronted by health district officials, she balked when told she can’t keep certain possessions that are highly contaminated, like a 1966 children’s encyclopedia she used to read to her kids.

The officials said things to her like “I understand this can be hard for you.” Moore didn’t think they could empathize.

“How do you understand?” she asked the officials. “You go back home and sleep in your bed every night.”

Moore was informed that her participation in this article might inspire other people to look around their houses and talk to a health inspector about any possible risky items. Moore said she was glad to participate.

“I wish somebody would have done it for me,” she said.

Kaup-Fett suspects that the mercury in Moore’s basement was spilled before they even got there. Much of it has a dull, oxidized coating, she said, which indicates it being undisturbed for a long time — years, even.

So, previous tenants could have been poisoned by the spill and not known it, Kaup-Fett said.

The Sandors, who own the property, were unable to be reached for comment Monday.

Contact this reporter at (937) 328-0353 or at bsmith@coxohio.com.


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