County health officials warn residents after mercury spill

County health officials warn residents after mercury spill

County health officials issued a health advisory Tuesday warning residents and visitors to avoid certain downtown streets until residue from a rare and significant mercury spill has been safely removed.

Around 3 p.m. Monday, the county health department’s hazardous materials team responded to a report of the spill  in the Amtrak train station’s parking lot, 601 Marina Vista Ave. Contra Costa County Fire Protection District paramedics had been at the station for a prior medical call, but saw and recognized mercury on the ground. Crews then found mercury inside the train station itself.

By Tuesday afternoon, team members working with federal Environmental Protection Agency staff found more mercury in the street and gutters along a five-block route from the station. Those amounts were not expected to cause immediate health risks, but could affect people and animals who walk through the area and track the mercury indoors to homes and businesses.

County health department deputy director Matt Kaufman, who joined other officials at a press conference Tuesday night, said the extent of the spill’s spread from a garbage can outside the station became clearer after learning that city maintenance crews had emptied the trash can into the back of a city pickup truck around 9 a.m. Monday.

“That truck continued on its designated route, where we now have found contamination in the street,” Kaufman said in part, adding that staff were working with Martinez police to determine how the mercury got into the garbage can, and with other health staff to figure out how much was dumped beyond an estimate of one to one and a half pounds.

In a statement earlier Tuesday, county health officer Dr. Ori Tzvieli said that “from a health standpoint, our primary concern is that people don’t step in the mercury on the street and bring it inside their homes where indoor vapors may pose a health hazard.” Once indoors, such vapors can accumulate and even concentrate with exposure to warmer temperatures and limited air circulation.

At the press conference Tuesday, Tzvieli added that spill-related health problems only happen with significant exposure over a short time or lower levels over a longer time, with symptoms that could include “feeling anxious, headache, diminished appetite, trembling and memory problems.”

Affected spill areas include the train station and parking lot, which have been closed since Monday afternoon, Marina Vista Avenue from the station and Alhambra Avenue, Alhambra from Marina Vista to Buckley Street, Buckley from Alhambra to Berrellessa Street and Berrellessa from Buckley north to the city’s public works yard.

Per a county-issued community warning system alert Tuesday night, residents in that areas are urged to use sidewalks and avoid walking in the roadway.

“We do know that some people do like to walk around in the part of the marina, as it’s really beautiful. These streets are sort of bordering that area, with people coming or going from the train station,” Kaufman said in part.

“We think the risk to the community is very low, but we do know that some people do like to walk around in that area, and we wanted to give those people all the information that we have so they can make their choices.”

Anyone who walked along those streets Monday or Tuesday who may stepped in what looked like a shiny or silvery liquid should avoid touching any exposed items, bringing them indoors or trying to clean them by hand or with a washing machine. Any such items should be placed in a bag, which should then be sealed and placed inside a second bag and then left outside, away from others. People should then call the hazardous-materials staff at 925-655-3200.

Cleanup at the train station and downtown streets is expected to continue into Thursday, with the station remaining closed and trains dropping off and picking up passengers at the old train depot on Ferry Road.

Taking questions from journalists Tuesday night, Kaufman said the county has had mercury spills before, but called them rare and referenced a previous March 2017 spill along Manzanita Way in Antioch. “Typically, what we see is small amounts of mercury spilled,” he said.

“What we visualized yesterday at the train station would be what I consider a significant spill of mercury, based on the initial accounts and seeing pictures and photos of the amount of mercury that was in the gutters and on street surfaces.”

Kaufman said their work with state fish and wildlife department and regional water-quality control board staffers led them to believe “some of the mercury did find its way to a storm drain. However, we’re unsure at this point in time if that storm drain leads to a waterway.” He added that crews will monitor air along the spill areas in coming days, given expected warmer weather that could affect mercury vapor presence. Kaufman added that the county has three household hazardous-waste facilities where residents may dispose of waste, including small amounts of mercury, for free.

Mercury is found in different devices, including medical equipment such as thermometers and blood pressure cuffs or objects like switches, but Kaufman said the amount found was more than would be used in a single thermometer and may have come from an industrial setting.

Staff writer Rick Hurd contributed to this report. Contact George Kelly at 408-859-5180.

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