Mercury Spill at Sylvania’s HT Building

By Juan Lacayo|October 21, 2017News, Top Stories|

Liquid Mercury pouring into a clear dish

Courtesy Bionerd

An isolated room in the Health Technology (HT) building at PCC Sylvania hosted a Mercury spill on May 25, 2016. Staff in the Child Development Center (CDC), which is located in several rooms on the second floor of the Health Technology building, alerted Facilities Management Services (FMS) to a strong “sewer” smell in the area. The next day, FMS technicians began searching for possible sources of the odor.

The FMS investigation found a “small spill of fluid” in HT124B, a space that houses the PCC Dental Clinic’s amalgam separator (AS). An AS is an EPA-required device for clinics performing procedures involving the use of mercury “designed to remove solids from dental office wastewater […] through centrifugation, sedimentation, filtration, or a combination of any of these methods.” An AS that meets the EPA-required ISO standard (11143) can achieve a particulate removal rate of 95 percent.

The leak occurred not in the separator itself, but from a gasket leading into the separator from the sinks.  According to Heidi Van Brocklin of FMS, the separator is made by the Rebec company, and had been installed in 2007. Van Brocklin said the unit had  its last service before the spill in  March 2015 by Burkhart Dental Supply  gathering from 2 ½ to 3 pounds of dental waste a year.

The Dental Clinic’s AS had a leaky gasket upstream of the unit that was allowing mercury-laden saliva to spill onto the floor instead capturing the mercury and allowing the wastewater to pass through the separator. The sewer-like odor detected by staff was attributed to biological decomposition of the fluid.

Photo of teeth with amalgam fillingsA sample of the leaked fluid was collected by spill response contractor, NW Envirosearch, to be sent to Apex Labs for analysis. The Bridge filed an Oregon Open Records request with the college to obtain a copy of the report and accompanying emails. The Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) analysis uncovered 4,760 parts per million (ppm) of mercury present in the sample, which was thousands of time higher than the 2-ppm federal threshold for safety. The high concentration of mercury is “somewhat expected for a ‘trap’ collection system that is doing its designed job,” according to the report sent to PCC by NW Envirosearch and, “the TOTAL [concentration] was expected, but much higher than expected for the TCLP results.”

The same report states that NW Envirosearch recommended the installation of a sampling valve into a ‘P’ trap area “in order to allow for collection of flow/waste before the separator unit to find out what the actual mercury levels are in the waste flow prior to concentrating in the accumulator/separator unit.” In the email chain of communications on fixing the problem, the NW Envirosearch representative also noted that they didn’t believe this could have been a health issue for those in the building because of the liquid form of the contaminant and because of its location away from the “primary air flow path zone.” According to Celina Baguiao, Community Relations Manager at PCC Sylvania, on May 27, 2016, NW Envirosearch staged a cleanup of the spilled materials that concluded before 7am. The faulty AS was assessed by Burkhart Dental Supply then shut down until they installed a new AS on June 13, 2016. The cleanup materials as well as the old AS were stored in a drum in a non-public, outdoor space reserved for hazardous materials on the Sylvania campus.  The amalgam separator uses cartridges to store trapped material, and these were shipped to Rebec, the company that made the separator for disposal. Rebec uses another company, Pristine Environmental Serices to dispose of the hazardous waste.  NW EnvironSearch charged $587 for its report, and the new amalgam separator was $1,900, including installation fees.

The Bridge thanks Celina Baguiao, Community Relations Manager for the Sylvania Campus and Heidi Van Brocklin of FMS for their assistance in reporting on this story. Background research was conducted by student reporter Leah Bell-Johnson.  Posts of the APEX lab report and the PCC email chain can be found on our homepage.

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Juan Lacayo

About Juan Lacayo

It’s difficult to describe my academic path because I haven’t figured out how to merge my interests into a degree program. I’m currently enrolled in the Multimedia Studies program in the hopes that I can gain the skills to cobble together a career with a Vice News or Radiolab type of organization as a storyteller. My interests include: music (jazz, electronic, hip hop, etc.), cinema, reading deviant or counterculture literature, comedy, social justice, and attempting to understand cultural and individual idiosyncrasies. My passions include: writing fiction, riding and working on bikes, and capturing the world through the “Juan” filter. I’m one of the lead bakers with Blue Star Donuts, which means that I have my hands in just about everything on the production side of the operation. On any given day, I could be making the dough, rolling out and cutting doughnuts, frying and finishing doughnuts, or making the magical potions that comprise our glazes, garnishes, and fillings. This type of position suits me, as I fancy myself a Jack-of-all-Trades, and I like to keep busy. Whatever I’m involved in, I like to have a hand in as many things as my expertise will allow. I love learning new things.