COLUMN: No silver lining to this disposal difficulty

According to media reports, it cost something like $6,000 to clean up a mercury spill...

COLUMN: No silver lining to this disposal difficulty

According to media reports, it cost something like $6,000 to clean up a mercury spill caused when a Metro Vancouver woman dropped a thermometer and called 911. I guess with all the firemen, hazmat guys, ambulance on scene and all that, costs do escalate.

Interestingly, and probably justifiably, the woman was initially charged with the full cleanup costs, rather like an intentionally out-of-bounds snowboarder/skier who requires rescue should be, as well.

However, in most cases it is the taxpayer who ends up footing the bill for these otherwise unnecessary costs. The ‘mercurial’ woman did protest, and eventually ended up being billed less than $400, which she apparently still considers unfair.

One argument put forward, despite all the horror stories of mercury contamination, is that the woman should herself have simply cleaned up the tiny amount of silver balls and chucked them in the trash.

Had she done that, she would then have opened herself to improperly disposing of toxic waste, and potentially faced considerable fines.

While today we are striving hard to eliminate toxic products in our waste, our environment and our lives, they are all around us in such simple, and safe when not broken, things as thermometers. Mercury has a tendency when rolling around the kitchen floor, to begin to evaporate, releasing seriously dangerous fumes.

Such was not the belief, or perhaps understanding, when I was in school. I can recall in science class the teacher dumping from a vial a small amount of mercury on my desk. Push the mercury drops together and they instantly formed a puddle. Give it a little nudge and it disintegrated into tiny silver balls we could push around.

We did all this with our bare hands, inches from our faces, even taking the mercury into our palms to watch it roll about.

I’m not sure if any of my classmates suffered brain or other organ damage from the exposure. As I recall, most of them went on to lead full lives, their mental capacities intact to the degree that doctors, lawyers and even a newspaper columnist emerged, I assume relatively unscathed, from the experience.

Not only that, ‘back in the day’ mercury was used in dental amalgams to patch cavities and currently, thanks to pollution, we are all consuming minute amounts of mercury in the meats and plants we eat.

Most notably, the burning of coal to fire power plants or create steel produces most of the mercury pollution. The cement industry is also a contributor to airborne mercury, as is gold production. And the various fluorescent lights and batteries we use, if not disposed of properly, are further causes of contamination.

Obviously caution is needed when dealing with potentially toxic waste, but did it ever occur to you that a broken pig-tail lamp we are all supposed to use, or a damaged flashlight battery, could create a substantial cleanup charge should you call 911 to take care of the hazard?

On the other hand, if you clean up your own tiny mercury spill, what do you do with it? Shrug your shoulders, think one tiny little thing isn’t going to damage the world, and toss it in the trash? Or with the object in a little baggie do you try to find somewhere that will take and dispose of it properly?

Good luck. All you can do is try to be conscientious and do the best you can.