Volume 75, Number 35 | January 18 - 24, 200

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Clockwise from above left: A Department of Environmental Protection employee scanned the sidewalk outside 55 W. Eighth St. last Friday to check that some mercury being removed from the building that had dripped through a hole in a plastic bag had been properly cleaned up; Carol Wilson, in whose apartment the mercury was found, in front of a truck full of her personal possessions that were removed from her apartment and which were to be incinerated; an employee from a private cleanup company removed bags of possibly contaminated material from the building last Friday afternoon.

Heavy metal rocks Eighth St.;Mercury mystery still unsolved

By Jefferson Siegel

Almost a week after 15 pounds of mercury mysteriously came splashing into a Greenwich Village woman’s apartment from her ceiling, no explanation has been given for how the toxic heavy metal got there in the first place.

Early on the morning of Thurs. Jan. 12, mercury from an unknown source was found dripping into a second-floor apartment at 55 W. Eighth St. The discovery led to a complete evacuation of all nine apartments in the six-story apartment building. On Friday, a handful of tenants were allowed to enter their apartments for a few minutes to retrieve some personal belongings, but city officials were unsure when the tenants could return to their homes.

On Friday afternoon, employees of a private environmental-cleaning company were bagging items from one apartment and loading the bags onto waiting trucks. An official from the Department of Environmental Protection overseeing the operation said the items would be incinerated and any mercury would be recovered.

Department of Buildings records show the last major work on the building was undertaken in 1998-’99, when the interior and front of the ground-floor store, now a shoe store, were altered and a new storefront and partitions were installed. The building had no outstanding D.O.B. or Department of Housing Preservation and Development violations, according to records.

Ian Michaels, a D.E.P. spokesperson, said about 15 pounds worth of mercury had fallen into the apartment.

“A piece of the ceiling collapsed into the apartment and when it did so it spilled approximately 15 fluid ounces of mercury,” Michaels said. “Mercury is a very dense substance, so when you talk about a fluid ounce, which is a measure of volume, each ounce is equivalent to about one pound in weight of mercury.”

D.E.P. inspectors “confirmed that it was, in fact, mercury,” Michaels continued, “and they ordered the building to be vacated because mercury is a health risk. It is a toxic substance that you do not want to come into contact with and you also don’t want to breathe mercury vapors.”

Of all the elements in the periodic table, mercury is the only metal that exists as a liquid under normal conditions. While most people are familiar with its presence in thermometers, its health risks became widely known in the 1970s when measurable amounts were detected in fish. The deleterious effects on humans of inhaling mercury vapors or absorption through skin can include damage to the brain, nervous system and DNA.

“There were three apartments that were found to have excess levels of mercury,” Michaels added. “After it was found that all the other apartments were within the safety levels for mercury, an order was rescinded and other people were allowed back into the building everywhere except for those three apartments.” The three apartments affected are the second-floor unit where the leak was discovered and the two apartments directly above it.

D.E.P. issued an order for the landlord to hire a contractor to clean up the mercury under the supervision of a D.E.P. hazmat team. “That contractor came in,” Michaels said, “and one of the first things that they do is to tear out the ceilings, whether or not there’s any additional mercury at the location.”

When the contractor tore out an additional part of the ceiling in the second-floor apartment, they found more mercury. At that point, Michaels said, “the Health Department ordered the entire building to be vacated again.”

A shoe store, Studio 55, located on the ground floor directly underneath the affected apartment, has remained open since the toxic discovery. On Friday a salesperson said that, although officials went into the store’s basement several times, no tests were performed inside the store. When asked about this, D.E.P.’s Michaels said, “I didn’t even know there was a shoe store there,” and promised to follow up.

Building resident Carol Wilson, a graphic designer and a leader of the Eighth St. block association, had returned home Wednesday evening from a three-week vacation visiting family. After spending several hours settling in and going through a pile of mail, she walked into one of her bedrooms around 1 a.m. Thursday morning. “I saw the ceiling sort of hanging down in the corner,” she said. Wilson looked at the surface of a dresser under the sagging ceiling and saw “little beads of something liquid.” Out of curiosity she stuck her finger in one of the drops. “It moved in a funny way,” she added, concluding it wasn’t water.

Her brand-new laptop computer was still on the floor where she had left it. “I lifted it up and underneath it was a big, long stream of silvery, thick liquid.” She concluded the liquid was mercury.

Wilson, who has lived in the building for 30 years, called an upstairs neighbor, who came down and told her he was unaware of any leak. “At this point, I’m thinking, it’s mercury and I’m getting out of the apartment,” she said.

Wilson decamped to the Washington Square Hotel, where, in the early morning hours, she started making phone calls. Her first call was to 311, the city’s nonemergency hotline. Her call was transferred to D.E.P., then to Poison Control and finally to the Office of Emergency Management, which suggested she call back in the morning.

She decided not to wait and made another call to 311. The operator transferred her to 911, where the operator suggested she call the Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit. Five minutes after she called, at 3 a.m., “I came running around from the hotel and they were already here,” Wilson recalled.

Ron Barney and his wife have lived on the top floor of 55 W. Eighth St. for seven years. “We were all out of the building by 4 a.m.,” he recounted. Fortunately, they have been able to stay at their in-laws’ place while the evacuation order is in effect. “The city’s response has been phenomenal,” Barney said of the quick reaction by the Police and Fire Departments. “I’m really grateful that they were there trying to do something.”

After Wilson told the first responders what prompted her call, a firefighter directed her to a waiting ambulance, where she was told to wash her hands with sterile water and a towel. The glove-wearing paramedic took the towel and sealed it in a red bag. She was taken to St. Vincent’s hospital where, over the course of two hours, her blood oxygen levels and heart rate were checked and found to be normal. Doctors told her “they did not check for mercury levels in blood in the E.R. and I should...go to my own doctor,” Wilson said.

Returning to the building in the predawn hours, Wilson discovered it had been evacuated and about 14 of its residents were sleeping in a city bus parked nearby. The tenants had been told they had five minutes to gather necessities and leave the building. One resident had his three cats rescued by D.E.P. and safely returned to him.

Over the weekend Wilson saw a photo of her bedroom. “My ceiling is sheetrock; above it is an old metal ceiling and the mercury, they said, was on top of the metal ceiling.” In an attempt to find any traces of the substance, workers had torn down her ceiling in two rooms. In one room, the metal ceiling hung down almost to the floor.

Preliminary cleaning of the rest of the building was completed on Saturday night and large fans were installed to exhaust any remaining mercury vapors.

The Health Department, D.E.P. and a private engineer were planning to test for any remaining mercury particles or vapors on Monday afternoon. If none were found, most tenants were expected to be allowed to return to their apartments shortly thereafter. Because of the physical damage to her apartment and lingering health concerns, Wilson doesn’t expect to be allowed to return home anytime soon. “I’m concerned about the whole health aspect,” she said. “I think we’re all just trying to figure out why mercury is in the building.”

Tenants were advised that they could go to Bellevue hospital on Monday for tests, but at their own expense. Barney, who planned to be tested, displayed a patient attitude. “We’re New Yorkers. This has happened before: 9/11, the blackout, you expect the unexpected.”

Wilson stood outside the building Friday and watched bags of her personal possessions carried off for disposal. “They threw out the bed, several items of furniture, rugs, books, anything that was paper,” she said. She was allowed to retrieve 400 books from another room for a project she’s been working on. “I had some archival photographs in that room in boxes and my friend took those to his apartment.”

As for how the mercury got there, it’s said that a doctor may have lived in the apartment above Wilson’s at one time and that a sculptor may also have lived there in the 1930s, though it’s not clear what either would have been using mercury for. Dentists, however, used to use mercury to make fillings.

On Friday, Jennifer Markowitz, a representative of the landlord, Janart Equities, was at the scene overseeing the cleanup effort. She declined to speak to a reporter.

As of Tuesday, D.E.P. said readings had still detected presence of some mercury vapors in the building, so tenants were not being allowed back in.

On a historical note, music legend Jimi Hendrix once lived in the building, which is across the street from the former Electric Ladyland studio at 52 W. Eighth St., where he recorded several albums.

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