By Dorothy Wigmore
“Local leaders should ask the administration about those rubberized floors,” says Tracie Yostpille. “If you have them, they need to be tested.”
As president of Freehold Township Education Association (FTEA), that’s a lesson she learned quickly last fall. Despite years as a local leader, she’d never heard about the hazard with rubber-like polyurethane floors in gyms and other school spaces.
The district facilities use manager stumbled onto it at an August workshop. There, someone talked about what made the floors more pliable: a hazardous chemical called phenol mercuric acetate (PMA). Over time, and with use, it can break down, releasing toxic mercury vapor. (The hazards are listed on the side box.) The chemical is invisible, odorless, and comes off at room temperature; the warmer it is, the more off-gasses.
The district took action, arranging for the gym floor to be tested. It worked with FTEA, using NJEA’s health and safety resources. They did air tests, closed the gym where test results were high, agreed to a presentation from a New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) hygiene consultant, and gave staff time off for health tests. The custodian, who also is chair of the union’s health and safety committee “was vital in ensuring follow-up,” Yostpille says.
The concrete floor also had high mercury levels, so the board will dig deeper. Next summer, the concrete will be removed down to where the mercury levels are really low, and a new floor will be installed.
“I think we’re in a good place now,” Yostpille says. “Because I have a strong union, I can make a phone call to get services for my members, to protect their health and safety. Working with the union and administration, we remediated something that could have been dreadful.”
Other districts have not responded as Freehold did. In another district, parents and the local had to work together to get information and action.
Although NJEA and WEC issued an alert in 2017, only 11 locals have asked for help with mercury in gym floors. The union suspects there are more mercury-laced floors out there, and some tests have had high results. You can read the alert here.
The problem goes beyond the floors. Once the PMA breaks down, the floors, and anything in contact with them, emit mercury indefinitely. It’s worse if the floors are damaged or deteriorated, the room is hot, and/or ventilation is poor—especially if there’s no outside air. Covering or sealing them is often ineffective. Mercury can penetrate and contaminate the materials placed on top, adding to costs of fixing the hazard.
Because I have a strong union, I can make a phone call to get services for my members, to protect their health and safety.
1. Find and report suspect floors
2. If you find a suspect floor, demand tests
3. How do you know if the numbers are high?
The California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) numbers are your best guide. You’ll find them here. They are far more protective than others. Minnesota’s—the one employers prefer to use—is more than 10 times higher than California’s 60 ng/m3 (also reported as 0.06 μg/m3).
4. What solutions are needed for unacceptable levels?
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR): “Mercury and Your Health”
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): “Mercury”
NJEA, WEC and the Healthy Schools Now Coalition: “Mercury hazard to staff and students from rubber-like floors in schools”
New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) (with NJEA, WEC and the Healthy Schools Now Coalition) Health and Safety Guide: “Mercury hazard in schools from rubber-like polyurethane floors”
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A former journalist, the Canadian has worked in the U.S. and Mozambique and been involved in efforts to prevent violence on the job since 1989.