By Dorothy Wigmore
“One, two, three, four. We don’t want the mercury floor.”
That’s essentially the message more and more New Jersey school staff, their union and community-based advocates are delivering to school districts. They’re finally getting traction after beating the drum for at least four years.
The North Plainfield School District removed the middle school’s rubberized gym floor this summer, following a two-year campaign led by the North Plainfield Education Association (NPEA). That effort was buoyed by NPEA members remaining organized, engaged and focused.
NPEA President Theresa Fuller brought in the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), a constant NJEA partner, for assistance. Fuller, the NPEA Health and Safety Committee, WEC, and then NJEA President Marie Blistan participated in a health and safety walk-through of the gym.
Ultimately, the flooring was tested and a plan to remove the flooring was developed.
“Our members’ advocacy really made the difference,” Fuller said. “We stood together, we spoke up, and we educated the community.”
NPEA and North Plainfield School District administration are now working together to make sure that students, staff and community members who use the middle school gym are safe.
The Garfield schools district is spending $400,000 to remove flooring in one gym where mercury vapor levels were 16 times higher than the state’s maximum. New Jersey’s level of 0.8 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) is 13 times higher than California’s 0.06 μg/m3, undercutting the state’s claim that their level protects young children and others. There is no national standard.
The New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) mercury flooring initiative continues. It started last year with inspections of more than 140 SDA-delivered projects to find where the flooring was installed. Where they found poured rubberized floors, they did bulk sample testing. For a small percentage, the next step was air testing. Four floors were removed this summer. The SDA—which does not cover all schools in the state—also requires a written manufacturer’s statement that floors do not contain phenylmercuric acetate (PMA) before using a rubberized floor product in a project.
PMA was used to make the poured polyurethane floors more pliable. With use—especially if floors are damaged—the chemical can break down, releasing toxic mercury vapor. The chemical is invisible, odorless and comes off at room temperature; the warmer it is, the more it off-gasses. Poor ventilation (especially without outside air) increases the hazard.
Mercury has a long history in the toxics world. Brain and central nervous system damage is a key hazard. Think of the “mad hatter,” who got that way thanks to the use of mercury on felt for hats. Young children—whose bodies and brains are still developing—are more easily affected. (See the box for more details.)
The problem goes beyond the floors. Once PMA breaks down, it can contaminate the surfaces beneath them. In Freehold Township, that meant the concrete base had to be removed with gym flooring before installing a new floor last summer.
When NJEA and WEC issued an alert about the floors in 2017, it was the first time most school staff, parents and communities had heard about the hazard. Only in 2020—after intense pressure from NJEA, WEC and Healthy Schools Now (HSN) —did the state health department issue guidance about how to identify the floors in schools and next steps if mercury is found. It has specific requirements about testing but only says removing floors is an option, along with not using the space or providing increased ventilation.
Information about the floors still is hard to get.
The health department document has only a partial list of manufacturers who “may also have included mercury catalysts” in their flooring. There is no inventory about how many such floors exist, where they are, or if they’re still being installed. There is no information about their current state. There is little public information about where tests have been done and their results. Nor is there state or federal government help to remove them.
“Mercury floors don’t belong in schools—or anywhere else,” says Heather Sorge, HSN Organizer at WEC.
HSN has a petition demanding that Gov. Phil Murphy and state legislators take immediate action to protect school staff and students from the hazard.
“We continue to demand that the state of New Jersey identify, test, and fund the remediation and removal of rubberized floors contaminated with mercury in our schools,” she says. “We also need a ban on any future installation of polyurethane/rubberized floors with mercury catalysts.”
It is hard for school staff to focus on hazards like this while confronting the realities and worries of work during a pandemic.
“The hazards we dealt with before the pandemic haven’t disappeared,” says Allen Barkkume, a NJ WEC industrial hygienist. “They still need attention.
“East Rutherford has just done a huge mercury flooring remediation project after managing the hazard for two years while debating how, when and if they would remove the floor,” he says. “The East Rutherford Education Association instigated the process and became part of a task force with community members to discuss what needed to be done.”
Barkkume suggests local education associations (EAs):
NJEA Review, March 2019
New Jersey Department of Health
NJEA, WEC and HSN
New Jersey School Boards Association with NJEA, WEC and HSN
Contact Heather Sorge to get involved in Healthy Schools Now at HSN@njwec.org.
Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, and “stress.” She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.