Mercury spill causes large-scale hazardous material cleanup at Texas shopping center

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Monday, December 16, 2019
FBI, HPD investigating mercury spill
A possible burglary at a nearby property is being investigated as a potential source of the mercury found at a west Houston shopping center.

HOUSTON, Texas -- One person has been taken into custody by the FBI for questioning in connection with a mercury spill Sunday in west Houston, authorities said.

FBI Houston says the person will not be identified at this time since he has not been charged.

Around sixty people were decontaminated as a precaution following the discovery of the heavy metal mercury at a west Houston shopping center located in the area of Westview Drive and West Sam Houston Parkway.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said a pregnant woman was transported to the hospital, but it was also precautionary.

Less than a pint of the element was found around 1 p.m. in three areas in and around a Walmart, Sonic restaurant, and Shell gas station, Peña said. First responders were able to set up a hazardous material decontamination area and wash people who may have come into contact with the substance. No one presented any symptoms of exposure, authorities said.

Those who had to be decontaminated had trace amounts of the element near their feet and shoes, according to a statement released Sunday night.

A pair of other incidents may point investigators in the direction of what led to the spill, Houston police said.

Authorities are looking into a possible burglary at a nearby property. They're also looking into a report of a man who went to a hospital claiming he had been exposed to mercury.

Mercury is a shiny silver chemical element that can cause health issues when there's prolonged exposure, according to David Persse with the Houston Department of Health and Human Services.

"Mercury has a bad reputation for causing neurological problems," Persse said. "That's only because of prolonged exposure. Today's situation, the risk to the public is extremely low."

Mercury is found in air, water, and soil and exists in three different forms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Elemental mercury is liquid at room temperature and is used in some thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, and some electrical switches.

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High vapor concentrations of elemental mercury can quickly cause severe lung damage and neurological disturbances, the CDC said. Sunday's spill involved only small amounts, authorities said.

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The scene is still in the process of being cleaned up, and the shopping center is blocked off. However, no roads are closed.

Authorities aren't yet sure about when the substance was spilled at the shopping center.