For Immediate Release: February 19, 2020
Contact: Heather L. Sorge, NJ Work Environment Council, Campaign Organizer for Healthy Schools Now 908/310-7874; firstname.lastname@example.org
Debra Coyle McFadden, NJ Work Environment Council, Executive Director 609/707-1320; email@example.com
New Jersey Department of Health Issues Updated Guidance on Mercury Found in School Floors
DOH outlines measures to identify, test, manage and eliminate the hazard, but DOH misses the mark to enact the most protective standard for staff and students
The New Jersey Department of Health (DOH) has released updated guidance for the evaluation and management of mercury-containing floors in NJ schools. Some rubber-like polyurethane floors may contain phenylmercuric acetate (PMA) that over time breaks down and releases mercury vapor indefinitely. Mercury vapor is odorless and colorless.
These hazardous floors, which the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), NJ Work Environment Council (WEC), and Healthy Schools Now (HSN) sounded the alarm about back in 2017, continue to be identified in schools across the state and the county. The floors have been installed since the 1960s and may even be hidden under other existing flooring. This flooring, and items that have been in contact with it, may emit harmful mercury vapor.
Mercury vapor can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, skin and eyes and is especially harmful to young children and fetuses whose bodies are still developing. Studies show that children with autism have an even harder time excreting toxic metals, further increasing the health risk.
The testing protocols within the DOH guidance are necessary as Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and date of installation are not determining factors in identifying whether a floor contains mercury. The only reliable way to determine whether a floor contains mercury is to test it using bulk sampling by an accredited laboratory.
We applaud the DOH for updating their guidance and strongly agree with some of their recommendations. For example, we fully support their recommendation not to use a room or to remove the floor if ventilation and air conditioning cannot reduce levels.
Although these guidelines denote progress, they fall short in several critical areas.
- The DOH maintains their maximum contaminant level of 0.8 µg/m3 that was established under the Chris Christie Administration instead of using the most protective guidance issued by California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment which established 0.06 µg/m. Utilizing the most protective standard is critical as there have been no studies to examine the long-term effects on children from mercury vapor, which is different than a mercury spill, i.e. an old mercury-filled thermometer breaks.
- There is no mention in the guidance of testing, cleaning, removing, or disposing of contaminated furnishings or equipment that has come in contact with a mercury-laced floor.
- The guidance does not state that air sampling should be conducted using “worst-case scenario” conditions (maximum temperature and minimum possible ventilation).
- There is no system for data collection. No public database is established to track which schools have tested, testing results and ongoing testing results if the hazard is managed in place.
- The guidance states that seasonal testing can stop after one full year. This should be ongoing as indoor environmental conditions are subject to change. For example, an HVAC system is repaired or replaced.
- No information or guidance is provided regarding remediation procedures.
- No detailed information is provided regarding custodian/maintenance safety (cleaning and safety equipment protocols).
- The guidance does not quantify what factors and circumstances determine adequate ventilation and air conditioning systems and what would be necessary to attempt to control mercury levels if the floor is being managed in place. Information on the HVAC system is needed to ensure they can handle extreme temperatures and humidity. For example, if the system cannot handle it, then poor indoor air quality problems could be created.
“While the updated guidance provides valuable information for school districts, we are disappointed the DOH did not adopt the most protective standard for school staff and children. There is no safe level of mercury exposure, and we owe it to students and staff to do everything we can to protect their health. There should be no shortcuts or half measures when it comes to health and safety in our schools.” Marie Blistan, President, New Jersey Education Association.
“We are glad to see the DOH has begun taking steps to address this issue,” said Heather Sorge campaign organizer for Healthy Schools Now. “We now need to conduct a statewide survey, remediate floors found to be toxic, and take legislative action to further address this hazard. Our New Jersey school staff and students deserve to learn and work in schools that are healthy and free of toxins.”
“There was no stakeholder engagement by DOH in developing this guidance. This was a serious misstep. Some of the concerns we’ve outlined may have been addressed given the opportunity to be part of the process,” said, Debra Coyle McFadden, executive director, NJ Work Environment Council. “We need the State and school districts to take action to eliminate this hazard in our schools.”
Next Step: Survey and Test
The only way to understand the breadth of this issue is to conduct a required statewide survey and bulk test all rubberized/polyurethane school floors. At this time no plan has been released by the Department of Education to conduct a full assessment of this hazard which is critical to eradicating it.
Since 2017, Healthy Schools Now and partners NJ Work Environment Council and the New Jersey Education Association have worked closely to raise awareness regarding the dangers of rubber-like polyurethane floors which were installed using a mercury catalyst.
Last spring several contaminated floors were found in Gloucester County New Jersey, many of which have since been removed. It remains unclear as to how many of these floors exist in New Jersey schools.
Healthy Schools Now is a coalition of over 70 organizations representing a diverse set of stakeholders including public school advocates, parents, social justice, faith leaders and environmentalists who are dedicated to ensuring that all New Jersey children and school employees learn and work in a safe, healthy, modernized school buildings.