The Quicksilver Mess

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Remember the illicit thrill of cracking open a thermometer and pouring out the contents, marveling at the slippery weight of the shimmering puddle in your palm? Imagine, then, the excitement of two Arkansas teenagers when they found some 40 lbs. of the stuff--pure mercury--in an abandoned factory where it had been used to make neon lights. They and their friends dipped their hands and arms into it. They poured it on their bedroom floors to see it wobble and flow. They showed it off at school and handed it out in jars and vials. One youth dipped a cigarette in it and smoked it. And then he and his buddies began to fall very ill.

These kids, growing up in the age of digital thermometers, didn't know that they were playing with a poison--one that can be absorbed through vapors or prolonged contact with the skin. They didn't know that the expression "mad as a hatter" refers to the 19th century workmen who used mercury to cure beaver skins for top hats and over time developed nervous twitches, drooled and spoke incoherently.

Several weeks after the two boys found the mercury, doctors in Texarkana, a town of 22,600 that straddles the Texas-Arkansas border, began to see symptoms of poisoning. The boy who smoked the mercury-dipped cigarette began coughing up blood. Five more victims were hospitalized with symptoms that included vomiting and difficulty breathing. On Thursday one of the boys who found the mercury was readmitted to the hospital suffering from seizures. Further tests were ordered on 42 other townspeople.

By last week Texarkana was crawling with men in moonsuits, rubber gloves and respirators as two dozen federal, state and local agencies tried to contain what had become a full-blown toxic emergency. Authorities identified 170 people--some in a town 15 miles away--who were exposed to the mercury as it moved from school lockers to kids' bedrooms and local businesses. Eight homes were contaminated so badly that they had to be evacuated and emptied of most of their furnishings. A classroom was splashed with mercury, as were a restaurant and a convenience store.

"The kids poured mercury all over everything"--including themselves, their clothing and carpeting--"and they breathed the vapor," says Dave Hall, the city's emergency coordinator. In one house the fumes, which accumulate near the floor, killed the family dog and caused health officials to rush several small children to the hospital. In that dwelling and others, emergency teams were tearing out carpets and floorboards. Investigators have recovered all but a few pounds of the mercury, and promise not to prosecute anyone who turns in more of it.

Poison experts hope this incident will increase public awareness of mercury's dangers. Some immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean make a religious or good-luck totem by mixing mercury with mop water or burning it with a candle. Doctors believe that mercury vapors from these rituals may be slowly poisoning entire families, in a tragedy more far-reaching, if less dramatic, than the one in Texarkana.