New Jersey releases new guidelines for testing for mercury vapors in schools

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The New Jersey Department of Health released new guidelines this week for testing for dangerous mercury vapors in the state’s schools.

Mercury vapors can’t be seen or smelled. Vapor exposure at any level can be dangerous, potentially causing nervous system and kidney damage. Schools throughout the state could potentially be exposing students to mercury vapors via the schools’ floors.

“On lead in water, schools had to do testing and submit it,” says New Jersey Work Environment Council executive director Debra Coyle McFadden. “We would like to see the same thing done with these floors.”

Phenylmercuric acetate (PMA) is used to treat rubber-like polyurethane floors, commonly found in school gyms. Sometimes wooden floors are built over them. PMA breaks down over time and releases mercury vapors.

The state Health Department is now recommending that schools have floors tested.

“Much more needs to be done. We don’t know how widespread this issue is,” McFadden says.

North Plainfield Middle School's gym has been closed for most of the school year due to mercury vapor concerns.

But in its latest update, the Environmental Safety Management Corporation said, “Airborne mercury levels within the gym were low, averaging approximately 0.2 to 0.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air, substantially lower than the New Jersey Department of Health guideline for mercury in gymnasiums of 0.8.” California's standard is .06.

“That's much higher than California. So, we want to see the most protective level be adopted by the state to make sure that children and the school staff are safe as well,” McFadden says.

Some floors containing PMA were installed in buildings as recently as 2006.

North Plainfield will be holding a mercury flooring town hall meeting at the end of March.

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