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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting a Quicksilver Health Threat

ST. PETERSBURG -- When a teacher at Public School No. 403 in the St. Petersburg suburb of Pushkin noticed a telltale silvery coating on the school lawn this week, she knew exactly what she was dealing with: mercury, a toxic element that has lately been popping up with alarming frequency in the hands of local schoolchildren.

The school quickly called in the Emergency Situations Ministry. Soon a team of "mercury busters" -- which answers two or three such calls a week -- cordoned off the area and went to work. Oleg Seminogov, a local spokesman for the ministry, said workers repairing the heating system in a nearby building were responsible for the spill.

Because the mishap happened after school hours, Seminogov said, it was unlikely the schoolchildren were exposed to the toxic mercury. He added, however, that the school would remain closed for at least part of the week while the children and building were closely examined.

Mercury is a toxic metallic element that can, in some circumstances, be deadly. Silvery and mirror-like, it is liquid at ordinary temperatures and used in such varied devices as thermometers, electric switches, mercury vapor lamps and batteries.

Officials in St. Petersburg say mercury ends up all too frequently in children's hands because of carelessness by workers, improper disposal and curiosity by the children themselves.

"Mercury seems to mystify children. It's one of the more incomprehensible elements," said Svyatoslav Koroletsky, director of the Engineering Center of Ecological Works, the disposal arm of the local mercury-buster team. "When we were kids, we would break thermometers and use the drops of mercury to paint brass-colored 2-kopeck pieces silver to pass them off as 10-kopeck pieces. It was a sort of game."

Since it opened in 1991, Koroletsky's center has been called out on more than 1,000 cleanup missions to collect more than 2 tons of mercury. His workers have gathered more than 55,000 broken thermometers in the past three years alone. The mercury is disposed of in a hazardous waste dump just outside of St. Petersburg.

If inhaled, mercury particles can affect the nervous system. Inhaled with some substances, such as nicotine, it can kill. Two children, ages 8 and 9, died in St. Petersburg about two years ago when they began to smoke cigarettes after playing with bottles filled with evaporating mercury, Koroletsky said.

"They died because of the resulting chemical reaction," he said. Mercury is less of an overall health threat to St. Petersburg children than lead, which slowly contaminates their bodies as they breathe air fouled by cars burning leaded gas or drink water polluted by industry. But silvery mercury seems to catch more attention in the headlines.

In St. Petersburg, reports of children playing with mercury and even bringing it to school have peppered newspapers through 1996 and 1997.

"There have been incidents when children have found empty food cans in the trash, which, unknown to them, contained mercury," Koroletsky said.

"They then used the can like a soccer ball and inadvertently spread the mercury around."

In November, City Governor Vladimir Yakovlev issued a decree ordering a citywide inventory of mercury in order to keep it from children.

"Mercury has no retail value so it isn't interesting to adults," said Kirill Fridman, the chief environmentalist for the Sanitary-Epidemiological Services office. "But children amuse themselves with it, and that fact calls for surveillance of the mercury levels in the city."