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An expert panel presented the necessary steps to begin the mercury inspection and remediation process

The middle of the twentieth century saw a wave of innovation: Radial tires, the polio vaccine, solar cells, computer hard disks, color television, Velcro, the first pacemaker. Less touted, but equally ubiquitous, were rubberized synthetic floors. Their low-maintenance durability and modern finishes saw them widely installed in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, community centers, and other public spaces. Unlike their groundbreaking counterparts, however, some of these synthetic floors did not continue to benefit the populace far into the future. In fact, the years have turned what was once revolutionary into a potentially dangerous environmental health hazard found in today’s older schools, health facilities, and commercial and municipal buildings. Insurance Restoration Specialists, Inc. (IRS) of Monroe, New Jersey, recently sponsored a seminar to educate New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) members about the dangers lurking under school gym floors.

Why is mercury being found in school floors?

Many rubberized synthetic floors installed in the 1960’s were made with phenyl mercuric acetate (PMA). The PMA acted as a catalyst in the rubber material. As the floor ages and deteriorates, however, mercury vapor from the PMA is released into the air. Exposure to mercury vapor, a known neurotoxin, can cause serious health effects. According to the World Health Organization, “The inhalation of mercury vapor can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys.”

Not all synthetic flooring contains mercury and not all floors with PMA emit mercury vapors into the air. Still, it isn’t known how many of these floors exist or where they are located. Floors installed from the 1960s through the 1990s are suspect, but mercury can be found in newer floors or even in padded wall materials.

In response to this information, many school districts around the country are now investigating their facilities. As a designated provider of disaster response and remediation for New Jersey schools through the Educational Services Commission of NJ (ESCNJ), IRS Vice President , Tom Peter hosted a seminar for school superintendents, business administrators and school board members to learn what to expect in the mercury testing and remediation process.

“We wanted to present a summary of our experiences in dealing with these remediation efforts,” says Peter. “The potential health hazards are significant and it’s incumbent that administrators and facility managers proactively address the problem in schools.”

Presenters included Peter, a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), an expert in indoor environmental remediation and facility hygiene. Also featured was Michael Berta, a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and owner of AERO Environmental Services. Berta has provided industrial hygiene, safety, and health services to the educational community for over thirty years and has been involved with numerous mercury remediation projects. Also speaking was Dr. Richard Lynch, CIH, founder of Environmental Safety Management Corp (ESMC), a full service industrial hygiene consulting firm specializing in indoor air quality, mild testing, and remediation oversight and OSHA compliance.

The expert panel presented administrators with the necessary steps to begin the mercury inspection and remediation process, from air and floor testing to remediation and environmental controls should flooring be found contaminated and requiring removal.

MercuryPre-cleaning gym ceiling and rafters

mercuryCleaning inside and outside of ductwork

mercuryHeavy dust in ductwork

mercuryCleaning air handling units

mercuryBegin confinement/containment of work area

What are the dangers of hazardous materials remediation in schools?

Dr. Lynch discussed the history of the presence of mercury in flooring, explained the process of sampling and the requirements of proper hazardous materials remediation. He noted that dealing with substances posing dangers like mercury required certified experienced professionals. Without accurate testing, thorough eradication, validation, and proper containment during the process, the safety of the student and staff were at risk.

Peter went on to review protocols for prepping sites for remediation. IRS recently participated in several school projects by performing pre-cleaning gym ceiling and rafters, cleaning ventilation systems, and setting containment and engineering controls before demo of the floor. “It is so important to have to work areas properly contained and ventilated to eliminate the potential for exposure to workers and cross-contamination to other areas during the remediation process,” says Peter.

mercuryThe contained work area

mercuryContained work area, sealing off doorways around the gym.

mercuryExterior chambers for decontamination and for ventilation units

mercuryInspections of engineering controls.

mercuryMonitoring negative pressure in containment.

How are floors tested for mercury?

Berta shared several case studies illustrating the floor testing process. He included core sampling of gym floors, and explained how it was possible to have a successful remediation only requiring the top layer of the concrete subfloor once the rubberized synthetic flooring was removed. Proper testing allowed for a less impactful, costly repair while not compromising safety.

Not all sites are as fortunate. Dr. Lynch described instances where mercury had migrated from the flooring material fully through the concrete subfloor. The entire slab had to be removed and the area remediated.

mercuryRemoved floor prepared for reconstruction

The two-day event also included presentations from school district representatives, the NJ Department of Health, and a representative from Healthy Schools Now. Throughout the program were open discussion and question sessions regarding potential hazards, remediation, risk assessment, risk communication, and State and Federal standards and requirements.

“The seminar presented what is becoming an increasingly important, yet challenging, issue for New Jersey schools,” says Peter. “In addition to the questions about the process itself, many districts are concerned about how they will fund the work. Typically it wouldn’t be covered by insurance, and in most cases the manufacturer or contractor is no longer available. It’s important for school boards to get a proper assessment of the condition of their flooring in and budgeting as needed to rectify any problems that are found.”

For more information on the process of testing for and remediation of hazardous materials in flooring and wall materials, contact Tom Peter at Insurance Restoration Specialists, Inc.

About Insurance Restoration Specialists, Inc.

Insurance Restoration Specialists, Inc. (IRS) is a premier provider of disaster recovery mitigation, environmental remediation, biohazard emergency response and HVAC inspection and cleaning in the New Jersey-Philadelphia-New York City area. IRS is certified by NADCA and have Certified Air Systems Cleaning Technicians and a Certified Ventilation System Inspector on staff.

IRS has been selected to provide disaster recovery services to members of the Educational Services Commission of NJ (ESCNJ), the largest co-op in the state service school districts, colleges, universities, housing authorities, and other county and state agencies throughout New Jersey.