Gov. Cuomo signs bill banning new mercury flooring in schools

David M. Schwartz and Joie Tyrrell for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has signed a bill banning new mercury flooring in schools and setting limits on exposure to the neurotoxin.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre), also prohibits schools from installing additional levels of flooring on top of mercury-emitting surfaces that would conceal the old flooring.

The Amityville, Merrick and Miller Place school districts closed facilities this year after finding mercury vapor coming from rubberlike synthetic flooring.

“I applaud the governor for taking action,” Amityville Superintendent Mary T. Kelly said Tuesday. “One of the issues we were confronted with was there weren’t any standards for this type of environmental concern, and for us any type of mercury vapor presence is too much in terms of ensuring the safety and well-being of our children and our staff.”

The guidance level set by the state of .75 micrograms per cubic meter matches the level set by Minnesota schools for long-term exposure.

Cuomo, in a statement, said, "No parent should have to fear their child will be exposed to mercury vapors at school."

Kaminsky, chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, said, “The news that there’s a toxic chemical emanating from the gym floor was very concerning to a lot of parents I’ve spoken with. This goes a long way to getting this problem under control and remediating it where needed."

Griffin said, in a statement, "Students, parents, and faculty can rest assured that their health will no longer be at risk from exposure to this harmful vapor."

The state Education Department this past summer requested schools perform an inventory for the flooring, which was poured from the 1960s to the 1990s. 

A department official said a review of survey responses is underway that will help implement the new law.

The Education Department "will continue to work with the Department of Health, Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Labor to implement these new standards for testing for mercury and replacing this type of flooring, including providing additional information to districts," according to Emily DeSantis, spokeswoman for the department.

According to the state, exposure to mercury vapor can result in memory loss, tremors, respiratory failure and death.

In Amityville, low levels of mercury vapor were detected in early April in the gym at Park Avenue Memorial Elementary school. The gym at the fourth- to sixth-grade school has been closed since, and the 700 students have been taking gym outside or in an auditorium at the school. A new floor is being installed, and the gym is expected to open in December, Kelly said. The vapor was confined only to the gym.

Miller Place closed its high school gymnasium April 28 after tests found mercury vapor above an old synthetic floor that had been covered by wood. A news release from the governor's office said vapor levels were "high." 

In Merrick, the school board passed an emergency resolution to remove and replace flooring at the "Cubs Cave," a multipurpose room that is used for physical education, lunch and other activities at Norman J. Levy Lakeside School.

The legislation sets a time-weighted average mercury vapor exposure limit for employees or students of .75 micrograms per cubic meter. The law takes effect immediately and applies to installations after Jan. 1, 2021.