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We have a giant mercury exposure problem in our New Jersey schools. Rubberized flooring found in school gyms cracks over time. And some, not all of the flooring products have been determined to emit mercury when the cracks form. The cracks become a pathway for the mercury to be released into the environment so that our children can inhale it and become poisoned from it.
Testing has been taking place for the past three years to determine which floors are safe and which flooring needs to be replaced. This is a very significant because mercury harms small children and impacts them much more so than it impacts adults.
Mercury is of course naturally occurring. It is (1) persistent in that is really hard to eliminate from the environment, and (2) it causes neurological problems.
Furthermore, our children are especially vulnerable to toxic environmental threats, mercury exposure certainly high on the list of such threats. Their growth and development cycles make them particularly at risk. And certain childhood behaviors, such as hand in mouth behavior, makes children even more vulnerable.
What makes the gym flooring exposure potentially more problematic is that the mercury impacts are culminative. Children already have mercury exposure risk from dental amalgam, take-home exposure from occupationally exposed adults, and accidental exposure. The gym flooring problem only adds to their other sources of mercury exposure.
Washington Township in Gloucester County is reported to be spending $3.2 million to remove its rubberized floors in the gym and all purpose rooms of several schools. Some government officials statewide reportedly claimed that the released levels are low and therefore do not pose a health hazard. But one school reported levels of .74 mg /cubic unit of air and the standard is virtually the same at .8.
According to the NJEA the problem is worsened if the flooring is cracked, the room is hot or poorly ventilated. These seem like the kinds of variables which change often and cannot be readily controlled.
The key is this: no one can tell you that this is safe. Even if levels meet an arbitrary state guideline, the question remains: why should our children be exposed to any of this when it can potentially cause so much permanent harm, when it can be readily avoided, and when the culminative impacts are a real risk.
Some school districts are actively testing and replacing. That is a good start. But any school where exposure may have happened needs to be promptly tested. Two years ago we found out that many students were being lead poisoned in our schools. Some we know are also being mercury poisoned.
Isn’t school supposed to be a safe place where our children can grow and learn?
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