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Sunday, January 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Teens Fall Ill After Taking, Playing With Mercury

The AP

TEXARKANA, Ark. - Two teenagers made the coolest of finds after breaking into an abandoned neon plant last month - a shiny, silver liquid that looked neat when it beaded up on their arms.

They just had to share it with their friends.

Now, weeks later, the county is dealing with widespread mercury contamination that has sent two people to the hospital, closed a grocery store and forced seven families from their homes.

"It's very enticing. It looks neat and people think it's harmless and want to play with it, but it can be very nasty," said Donna Garland, a spokeswoman for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta.

Since Dec. 30, when one of the teenagers who took part in the break-in was treated for possible mercury poisoning at a hospital, emergency officials have been trying to trace the 2 1/2 pints of the heavy metal that were taken from the city's old neon-sign plant. Every few days, more alarmed parents call to say they have a problem.

More than 50 people may have been exposed to dangerous levels of the mercury, which damages the central nervous system and can cause irreversible learning and speech disabilities.

Last week, a vial of mercury carried by a teenager broke inside a combination grocery store and sandwich shop. Emergency workers found out Thursday and closed the store.

Friday, city emergency workers confiscated two pairs of shoes from students at College Hill Junior High that were contaminated with mercury.

The grocery store and school incidents were being treated as acts of vandalism, said Dave Hall, emergency services coordinator in this city of 22,600 people along the Texas line, about 130 miles southwest of Little Rock.

Police recovered 21 of the 23 pounds of stolen mercury at one boy's house and picked up much of the remainder from other youths, Hall said. Emergency officials had feared that children had thrown it out.

"Every day we turn up more," Hall said.

At Garland City, about 15 miles from Texarkana, someone apparently poured some of the mercury out of a moving car just to get rid of it.

"They're scared that they're sick and they're scared of the repercussions from their folks," said Jerry Giles, Miller County emergency director.

Mercury, or quicksilver, has long fascinated people because of its wondrous properties.

Some mercury compounds are deadly in minuscule amounts; other forms - such as the regular, elemental variety stolen in Texarkana - are less toxic.

Mercury can cause tremors, insomnia, memory loss, headaches, vision problems, irritability and nervousness.

Poisoning is treated by adding other chemicals to the bloodstream that bond with the mercury and remove it from the body as waste.

The owner of the old neon plant, which shut down in the 1970s, told police the break-in occurred before Dec. 16.

Garland said the delay in symptoms is typical of gradual mercury exposure; the heavy metal accumulates in the body every time it's handled.

The mercury was in four or five half-pint jars when it was stolen. From there, the kids apparently divided it up among their friends, who put it in all sorts of household jars and other containers.

One person interviewed by police said some of the teenagers would dip their arms in the metal and watch it drip down their arms.

"They played with it extensively, actively," said Texarkana police spokesman Scott Megason.

"They poured the containers into a fish aquarium and played with it, sticking their arms in it and dipping two or three watches in it," Hall said.

The theft came to light when one of the boys who took part fell ill. The mother of one of the youngsters also got sick.

Megason wouldn't release the boys' names, saying they are suspects in a burglary.

The Environmental Protection Agency has evacuated seven houses, where the vapors had permeated walls, carpets and clothes. The families' possessions were wrapped in plastic and taken to a decontamination center.

Since emergency workers were first called out, they have also checked out homes in Hooks and Texarkana, Texas, just across the state line, but have found nothing yet.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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