Friday, April 6, 2001

Attorney wants mercury
site declared disaster area

By Nelson Daranciang

An attorney representing 120 Halawa residents who may have been exposed to mercury for several months wants the source of the mercury declared a disaster area.

Joe Ryan said such a declaration would allow the U.S. Health Department to monitor his clients.

State Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said a declaration is not necessary.

On March 12, state health officials evacuated Puuwai Momi public housing units after finding significant levels of mercury contamination. Earlier in the day, a boy from the housing complex showed possible signs of exposure to mercury at Aiea Elementary.

Ryan said children from Puuwai Momi found the mercury last November in an abandoned pump house and warehouse. They had been collecting scorpions and entered the building to get out of the rain. He said they carried the mercury to the housing complex in the jars they brought with them for the scorpions.

That means some of the children have been exposed to potentially toxic fumes from the mercury for up to four months, Ryan said. But he believes any amount of exposure could lead to long-term effects.

Not so, said Anderson.

"Mercury is only a problem if there is long-term exposure in an enclosed area," he said.

The state tested more than a hundred people and found only two with elevated levels of exposure. Neither exhibited any sign of illness. And the type of mercury found in the housing and the pump house is not associated with any significant health problems because it is not easily absorbed into people's systems, Anderson said.

"I see little value in doing further study or bringing in a federal agency," Anderson said. "I think we did a thorough job looking at potential exposures."

A team from the federal Environmental Protection Agency joined a private contractor to remove the mercury from the housing. The cleanup continues with just one unit still off limits because of contamination.

Ryan has also asked Mayor Jeremy Harris to urge police to stop questioning children who spread the mercury from the pump house for possible prosecution.

Aiea Elementary Principal Alfred Navares said police have been on campus to talk to students about the spread of the mercury. Honolulu police in Pearl City said they are conducting a burglary investigation. Ryan said two boys, 9 and 10, have been questioned by police, one in March and the other on Wednesday. He said the matter should be treated as a public health hazard rather than a criminal case.

"Instead of using police, they should rely on physicians' examinations because that's a much more friendly type of inquiry," Ryan said.

"And the children would be less reluctant to talk. They don't want to talk to police or people who appear hostile to them."

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