Target 2 Investigates: Mercury spills in Wis. more common than you think

Published: Mar. 2, 2017 at 5:19 AM CST
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) — After a mercury spill at Lincoln Elementary in Green Bay December 6, many of you have asked us, what’s the big deal about mercury, and is this rare?

Target 2 started investigating and discovered there have been hundreds of mercury incidents or spills in Wisconsin, but often times the public doesn’t know about them.

We dug through records and databases from the Wisconsin DNR, which tracks mercury spills and incidents.

The mercury spill at Lincoln Elementary in Green Bay marks the third such spill in the state in 2016, according to the DNR.

The agency tells Target 2 the others this year happened in southern Wisconsin.

Since 1987, the DNR reports 243 mercury spills statewide. (Two cases, including the Green Bay school spill, are still open and do not register on the DNR’s public database.)

Forty-four of those spills happened in Northeast Wisconsin since the late 1980s.

Nine happened at schools, on a bus or at a college or university.

The most memorable may be an incident in 1999 at Green Bay East High School, when students found mercury at the school, put it in squirt bottles and sprayed each other with it.

Since then, the DNR tells Target 2, it’s been working hard to educate the community, especially schools, about the dangers of mercury.

As we searched hundreds of pages of documents, we found mercury spills in a lot of other places, too.

There was one at the DNR’s own fish hatchery in Wild Rose in 2005 when a thermometer broke.

We found three spills reported at hospitals or clinics in this area from medical equipment breaking.

There was one at the prison in Redgranite in 2007 where mercury spilled from a computer.

About a dozen more came from accidents at industrial sites, mostly involving a broken jar or some kind of equipment containing mercury.

The majority around Northeast Wisconsin, though — 14 that Target 2 found — happened in residential settings, often involving kids playing with mercury they discovered.

As people learn the dangers of breathing in mercury vapors, including shortness of breath, nausea and vision problems, the DNR thinks the general public does take it more seriously now than even a few years ago.

“There’s been a lot of efforts since the early to mid-90s to work with schools across the state of Wisconsin, through DPI, and other sources, to have all mercury removed out of switches, our of science labs, not only at schools, but at hospitals, and really have elemental mercury taken out of the community, so that we don’t have more incidents like this,” says Roxanne Chronert, DNR Northeast Region Remediation and Redevelopment Team Supervisor.

But even the DNR was surprised that the number of mercury spills year to year hasn’t changed much between 2000 and 2015. It tells Target 2 there were about 10 incidents in 2000 compared to about nine in 2015.

That may be because mercury is still all around us, in products like light bulbs, our cars and thermostats.