A Hazardous Find Leads to MPCA Action

By KBJR News 1

May 17, 2012 Updated May 17, 2012 at 6:48 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) - It's not every day that you stumble across an ad on Craigslist for 64 pounds of elemental mercury.

"That, in itself, is unique, but it's not as unique to find people with unusual materials in their homes, maybe their attics. People who are buying a new home, or inheriting a new building," said Anne More, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

And, according to Moore, that was the case for one Floodwood resident when he was sorting the contents of his late grandfather's garage.

The man posted the jars for sale on line, not realizing the illegality of the matter, that's when the MPCA took action.

"The first step that we did is contact him, and then we worked with the sanitary district to go out, and get the material, make the arrangements to buy it from him, pack it correctly, transport it correctly," said Moore.

...and the work didn't end there.

"We have special equipment to test for fumes. People may not realize fumes come off of mercury, and this way we were able to determine that the man's home was not contaminated," said Moore.

Over 60 pounds of the naturally occurring, yet highly toxic element is no small amount by any standards.

"In 2011, we had about 8,000 participants come in, and we collected 231 pounds of liquid mercury from the public," said Heidi Ringhofer, of WLSSD.

And, there's no doubt there's still a lot out there, as it wasn't always as highly regulated as it is today.

"Back in the 40's and 50's, pharmacies actually sold mercury, and they would put it on baby's gums to prevent their pain when they're teething," said Moore.

...which wasn't the best idea, as side effects of prolonged mercury exposure include everything from high blood pressure to death.

"...sensitivity to light, pain in the extremities, symptoms of their neurological system, brain or spinal types," said Moore.

...which is why this batch was fortunate enough to make it to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District for proper disposal, and why, in Minnesota, such strict regulations are imposed on coal–burning and taconite processing plants, which release mercury into the atmosphere.

Officials with the MPCA and WLSSD urge anyone who happens to come across potentially hazardous household substances to contact either organization immediately, to ensure that it is properly disposed.