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Mercury in Rubberized Flooring

What’s underfoot should be top of mind.


One of the most popular places at any school is the gymnasium. From basketball games, wrestling matches and gymnastics meets to general PE classes or school dances, students, staff and even outsiders flock there for any number of reasons. Most consider the hazards might be a sprained ankle or scrapped knee, however these injuries are only part of the story. All too often, it is the hidden dangers that may have an even greater impact. It is the latter discussed here and specifically at issue – mercury (Hg) in rubberized flooring.


It is well-known that schools nationwide have installed rubberized, polyurethane floors in gyms for decades. Yes, wood and vinyl is also used but the prevalence of rubber flooring cannot be understated nor ignored especially if those floors contain mercury. So while these cushioned floors that may be better for feet and bodies, water resistance and yes, even aesthetic to the eye, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that what lies within has far-reaching effects on all ages.

At this year’s Environmental Information Association (EIA) National Conference, IEC founder and principal, Michael P Menz, CIH, CHMM, turns to the spotlight on this very important, yet often overlooked, issue with a technical presentation that speaks to the hazards, detection and solutions of mercury in rubberized flooring. He uses real life examples and work case studies to illustrate what schools and districts can do to mitigate the dangers.


Hazards:

Most commonly inhaled, elemental mercury has been shown to have crippling effects on a body’s nervous, digestive and immune systems as well as major internal organs, including the lungs and kidneys. The damages to the central nervous system (CNS) alone may cause changes in mood or personality, forgetfulness, irritability and tremors. Impacts in digestion may lead to a loss of appetite and anorexia, while trouble sleeping, fatigue and changes in vision and/or hearing are other effects of mercury exposure.


Mercury vapors are the most common manner of transmission and can be absorbed completely in the body. The mercury in the rubberized floor can also transfer to other surfaces, including the floor slab, furniture and equipment, such as basketballs, mats and more. Air transmission can be further compounded by the likelihood of surface absorption.


While the risks of exposure vary by individual, it has been well-documented that mercury has the greatest impact on younger children. Yet, others such as physical education staff, athletic trainers and custodians responsible for maintaining the floors and gymnasiums are at risk as well. This is because of the increased time and frequency for likely exposure. Other factors such as floor condition, room temperature and ventilation can (and does) make a difference.


Solutions:

As Michael points out throughout his presentation, there are several key approaches to reducing the mercury exposure risks. Clearly, the first and most obvious is to avoid the use of rubber flooring with mercury. However with so many facilities having these floors already installed, here are some key solutions:


  • Improve ventilation to mitigate the constant vapor emission

  • Do not cover or seal floors

  • Maintain cooler temperatures with improved air conditioning

  • Conduct ongoing air and wipe sampling

  • Perform proper and regular floor maintenance

  • Follow good housekeeping practices to include equipment and clothing

  • Implement hazard communication and training

  • Restrict and minimize floor access


For many, these mitigation efforts are not enough so what remains is to permanently eliminate the hazard by removing the mercury-containing floor – something that should only be done under the supervision of an industrial hygienist skilled on the critical protocols that must be followed.


The good news is that this once silent hazard is no longer on the sidelines. It has taken center court as school districts across the country embark on remediation efforts. Yet, K-12 schools are not the only facilities that have popularized the use of rubberized flooring. Other include industrial plants, universities, community centers, hospitals and those that require water-resistant or soft-absorbent floors thus greater awareness is helping to unmask this hidden mercury and protect those at risk.


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