By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — A mercury spill forced the evacuation of a Highland Avenue medical practice yesterday while crews mounted a lengthy cleanup effort.
Deputy fire Chief Gerry Giunta said a wall-mounted mercury sphygmomanometer — or blood pressure meter — was somehow tipped over in an examination room at North Shore Cardiovascular Associates shortly after noon, causing the mercury inside to spill out onto the linoleum floor.
“When it’s out of its containers, it turns into all these little BBs and they go rolling all over everything,” Giunta said.
An employee was in the room with a patient at the time of the spill, but it was unclear exactly how exactly how it occurred.
“Someone was either cleaning or bumped it,” Giunta said, adding that the amount of mercury spilled could have been as little as 30 milliliters.
Mercury is a volatile liquid that can produce its own vapors when not contained and becomes more volatile the more heated it becomes. Giunta said any inhalation of its vapors is considered particularly dangerous.
Nobody was injured in the accident, and the people in the room extricated themselves. The woman who was closest to the spill removed her shoes on the way out and left them by the room — but Giunta said they were determined to be uncontaminated.
Firefighters sealed off the room, cordoned off a section of the floor and called for help from the District 6 Hazardous Materials Team, which was conducting a drill in Dracut and took about 40 minutes to arrive. When they showed up, the crew used a mercury vacuum to pick up the largest particles on the floor.
But a representative of the Department of Public Health then conducted further testing of the area with more sensitive equipment and determined that the mercury hadn’t been entirely cleaned up. The entire floor was then evacuated, and an outside company was called in to conduct a more through decontamination. Engine 4 and Ladder 1 ventilated the building.
Giunta said the practice was hoping to reopen by this morning, but that it was unclear how long the decontamination process would take.
The company doing the work was still on-site as of 9:30 p.m.
“It was a long afternoon,” Giunta said.