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Mercury: Be careful, but don't overreact

I read recently that Boston is the latest city to ban the sale of mercury thermometers because of environmental concerns. I found my heart racing when I thought of my own run-in with that shiny, silver liquid.

I am no expert on the environmental ramifications, but I took a crash course in mercury when I was exposed to it during the first trimester of my first pregnancy four years ago. I learned two major lessons: be very careful with it and people really overreact to it.

A basic household thermometer burst in my car, and by the third call I made to the county's hazardous materials office to get information about cleaning it up, the secretary there was referring to me as "the lady with the spill."

It all happened because I was being the overly paranoid one to begin with. I was newly pregnant and read that it could be hazardous to the baby if I came down with a high fever. I felt feverish one morning as I headed off to work at the St. Petersburg Times Pasco County office and decided to take my temperature along the way. The glass thermometer read 98.6, so I dropped it in the side pocket of the car door and didn't give it another thought.

Three days later I noticed the May heat had caused the glass to burst and the silvery mercury was swimming around in the car's side pocket. I walked in the newsroom and asked if it was okay to touch mercury. A fellow reporter called up a series of stories on mercury from the electronic library and told me it was a good thing I wasn't pregnant because the element is known to cause blindness, brain damage and birth defects.

"But I am pregnant," I wailed to all of my coworkers. Whatever the news in Pasco County was that day, it was quickly brushed aside. My editor had reporters calling everyone from the University of South Florida to Tallahassee to Washington, D.C., to get as much information as we could about the effects of mercury on pregnant women and their babies.

Meanwhile, I talked to the county's hazardous materials office, insurance agents and waste removal companies. County officials forbid me, or anyone, to go near the car. They told me if we did not hire a licensed waste removal company to clean up "the spill" we were breaking the law and subject to large fines.

Two out of three clean-up firms turned down the job because if my baby "did come out weird or something," I might sue them for not cleaning it up properly. The Polk County company that did take on the job charged us $2,500.

(When my editor heard that, he said he would get his young son to do it for a lot less.)

Thankfully, our car insurance covered the cost after we paid a $500 deductible.

The clean-up team arrived in big masks, taped the car off with bright yellow caution tape then towed it all the way to Polk County. They couldn't risk exposing themselves over that long drive.

All day long, people tried to console me saying they had played with mercury as a kid, rolled it around in their hands, and had suffered no side effects. I heard stories of babies who had bitten thermometers, swallowed the mercury, had it pass through their system and never missed a beat.

But we learned that I was breathing the mercury in its gaseous state, which is more dangerous than touching it. By the end of the day one of the authorities on mercury we reached found two case studies citing effects of mercury exposure on pregnant women. A pregnant woman exposed to mercury in a laboratory setting did have a baby with birth defects. It didn't specify what. A dental hygienist exposed to mercury on her job had a baby with high mercury levels but there were no other problems, and the mercury levels dropped within a short time.

My own doctor had me collect four days' worth of urine so we could try to get an idea of how much mercury was in my system and the baby's. I carried these large jugs in a cooler to and from work for the rest of the week then finally had them sent off to a lab in North Carolina for testing.

It took almost two weeks from that first terrifying day when I found the broken thermometer to find out I had as much mercury in my system as someone who had eaten a generous helping of swordfish.

There's a lot of concern and some overreaction to mercury, according to Vincent Speranza, the manager of the Florida Poison Information Center's Tampa Bay office. His call center at Tampa General Hospital gets about five calls a month from people who have broken glass thermometers and don't know what to do.

"If they spill it at home we tell them to be careful and put it in a Ziploc bag," he said. "What we do worry about is getting cut on the glass."

The amount of mercury in a thermometer, about a fifth of a teaspoon, is so small it's not a threat of blindness or brain damage, he said. Also, the type of mercury in a thermometer is less dangerous than other forms. The poison control office will warn against vacuuming mercury because that can disperse it further and it can cause skin irritation in some cases.

"We're not going to call out a hazardous materials team every time someone breaks a thermometer," Speranza said. Still, he does support the move to eliminate the glass thermometers.

"It does makes sense if companies can come up with a non-mercury thermometer. The plastic ones are easier to handle and easier to dispose of," he said. "But we aren't supporting (a ban) because people are getting brain damage from thermometers."

Becton, Dickinson & Co., the leading producer of glass mercury thermometers, did not return my phone calls. But a company spokeswoman recently told the Associated Press that the manufacturer was focusing more on digital thermometers. They still sell the mercury models, she said, because many doctors still consider them "the gold standard."

Last summer, Wal-Mart and Kmart agreed to stop selling the glass mercury thermometers.

I certainly don't have any in my house. After what I went through I thought they should be outlawed across the world, though it turns out they are not as dangerous as I was led to believe then.

Still, I think everyone (except the waste removal companies) was trying to look out for my best interests and my baby's best interests. After the tests showed minimal mercury in my system, a lot of people urged me to write a story about how ridiculous the whole thing was. I didn't want to then. I wasn't about to tempt fate until my baby was born without complications.

Olivia did indeed come out just fine. Though my husband swears when she gets a fever he can see a little red line run up and down her leg.

If you have questions about exposing yourself or your children to anything from mercury to marigolds, call the regional poison control center at (800) 282-3171 from anywhere in Florida.

_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or call (727) 822-7225.