Officials Continue to Examine Simi Valley Homes for Mercury Exposure

Officials continued Tuesday to examine Simi Valley homes for possible mercury contamination but said early tests indicate it was confined to a small area around the actual spill.

By Cindy Von Quednow

Ventura County Star, Calif.

Officials continued Tuesday to examine Simi Valley homes for possible mercury contamination but said early tests indicate it was confined to a small area around the actual spill.

The mysterious spill of the toxic metal was reported about noon Monday on a driveway in the 4100 block of East Cochran Street, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. The spill was near Santa Susana Elementary School, but the school was not affected and remained open, officials said.

Authorities recommended the evacuation of six homes near the spill Monday, but residents in two of them decided not to leave, officials said. The others will not be able to return until the area is deemed safe, officials said.

Mercury: What you need to know

After the homes are thoroughly examined, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will decide on the type of cleanup. The EPA took command of the cleanup and investigation Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross was assisting the affected families, putting them up at a Simi Valley hotel.

A resident called authorities Monday, saying his dogs had become ill. The substance had been on the driveway, shared by the homes, for months but had not caused any problems before, the resident said.

Two to three pounds of the mercury substance had spilled, authorities said, and they still were not sure Tuesday where it came from or when.

Officials believe at least 10 people, including three firefighters, were exposed to the substance Monday morning, but no illnesses had been confirmed.

"EPA's early testing indicates that mercury contamination is limited to a small area adjacent to the spill," the city said on its website.

Nahal Mogharabi, a spokeswoman for the EPA in Los Angeles, said later that she did not know how long the area would be closed. "We're still trying to determine the extent of the contamination," she said.

She said investigators were looking into how the mercury got to the site and who was responsible for it. "These are questions we still have yet to answer," she said.

Cochran Street was expected to remain closed from Tapo Canyon Road to Winifred Street through Wednesday afternoon.

Tara Diller, director of Ventura County Animal Services, said animal control officers went to the area Monday and Tuesday to make sure no animals were in danger.

The department is housing one dog from the affected homes, but it was examined by a veterinarian and appeared to be fine, Diller said.

James Purtee, assistant city manager for Simi Valley, said the 10 people exposed were all decontaminated before leaving the scene Monday. Fire vehicles also were being decontaminated.

Ventura County Fire Capt. Mike Lindbery said those exposed likely had mercury on their clothes or shoes. Mercury is most dangerous when ingested or inhaled.

Mercury exposure can be quantified by blood and urine tests, and if someone has elevated levels, treatments are available to rid the body of it, officials said.

Authorities said those who think they might have been exposed should see a doctor or urgent care clinic for a blood test.

High exposure to mercury can cause kidney, respiratory, central nervous system, gastrointestinal and other serious health problems, officials say.

The concentration of mercury in the substance likely diminished over time as it was exposed to the elements outdoors, and it's unlikely to have caused any recent symptoms, Dr. Robert Levin, the county's public health officer, said in the city's web statement.

Staff writers John Scheibe and Cheri Carlson contributed to this report.

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