Senators call for state probe into mercury vapor after element found at Cubs Cave in Merrick

Anthony O'Reilly

May 20, 2019

Originally published in LI Herald on May 20, 2019.

After elevated levels of mercury vapor were detected in the Cubs Cave — a multipurpose room at Norman J. Levy Lakeside School in Merrick — Long Island state senators are asking the state to ban the use of flooring that could contain the potentially dangerous element.

“The discovery that school children may be exposed to toxic mercury vapor is extremely troubling,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Beach Democrat, wrote in an email, “and that is why I have asked the State Department of Education to launch a comprehensive investigation to determine how widespread the problem is and to formulate a plan of action.”

The Merrick School District closed the Cubs Cave on May 4 as a precautionary measure and ordered further testing, Superintendent Dominick Palma wrote in a letter to parents. “After this thorough assessment is complete, we will be able to determine what, if any, remediation is necessary,” the letter stated.

Preliminary testing at the school was ordered after district officials became aware that the flooring in the Cubs Cave could emit mercury vapor. According to the New Jersey Education Association, rubber-like polyurethane floors installed in schools from the 1960s to the 1990s contain a chemical that breaks down and releases the vapor.

Tests found mercury concentrations of 0.34 micrograms per cubic meter of air in Cubs Cave, 0.18 in the storage room, .014 outside the room and 0.15 in the office outside, according to Newsday. The acceptable state limit for mercury vapor is 0.50 micrograms per cubic meter, and the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 0.3 micrograms.

“Despite this low level of vapor release, the Board of Education and I are very uncomfortable with any level of mercury vapor within our schools,” Palma told parents. Negative air pressure has been introduced to the school to ensure that the vapor doesn’t spread throughout the building.

Earlier this year, a number of New Jersey school districts ordered a review of flooring used in buildings after mercury vapor was found in gymnasiums, some of which were closed.

Mercury vapor has been detected elsewhere on Long Island in recent weeks, and the Amityville and Miller Place school districts have closed rooms that have been affected.

In a May 17 letter to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Kaminsky wrote that the agency should determine the scope of the problem throughout New York. “The health and safety of our children are paramount,” he wrote.

Kaminsky also introduced a bill that would ban all schools, public and nonpublic, from using flooring that could contain mercury. The legislation would also set the state limit for exposure to mercury vapor in schools at 0.75 nanograms per cubic meter of air.

State Senators Kevin Thomas, a Levittown Democrat, Anna Kaplan, a Great Neck Democrat, and Jim Gaughran, a Northport Democrat, also called for a statewide probe of floors used in school buildings.

The State Education Department said in a statement that it would contact all schools about mercury vapor, and that it was working in conjunction with the health, environmental conservation and labor departments to develop guidelines for mercury testing in schools.

Palma said that the flooring in Cubs Cave was not used anywhere else in the district. J.C. Broderick & Associates, an environmental consulting firm, is conducting tests at the school. The district expects to provide an update on the matter in a public meeting in the coming weeks, Palma said.