Volume 75, Number 37 | February 1 - 7, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Carol Wilson on Jan. 21 with her older brother, Mark, who traveled from California to help his sister through the ordeal with her contaminated apartment.

‘Mercury building’ still unsafe for tenants’ return

By Jefferson Siegel

Nearly three weeks after mercury was found dripping into an apartment at 55 W. Eighth St., the building remains empty and officials are still unsure of the toxic substance’s origin.

Residents of the nine apartments have moved into hotel rooms or are staying with friends and relatives. Two sets of medical tests have been performed on tenants. High levels of toxic mercury fumes continue to permeate the building, leaving officials unable to guess when anyone can return to their homes.

Two rooms of the second-floor apartment where the 15 ounces of mercury was first discovered have been emptied and their contents removed for incineration. The ceilings, walls and floors of the apartment have been removed. A private cleaning contractor has spread a chemical on floors throughout the building in the hope of absorbing any remaining mercury vapors.

“The situation continues; people are still not allowed back in,” Ian Michaels, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson, said on Monday. “The vapor levels for mercury are still high.”

Michaels said floors and walls in two additional apartments are being removed this week in the search for more mercury.

“They’re still ventilating the building and they’re also using vapor-filtration systems, blowers with charcoal-filter systems which are supposed to filter out various vapors, including mercury vapor,” he said. “The work is continuing seven days a week.”

Two weeks ago The Villager reported that a ground-floor shoe store remained open despite the building’s evacuation. Subsequently, Michaels said, “The shoe store has been tested and the reason it’s not closed is because they didn’t find any mercury in that area.”

Jennifer Markowitz, a representative for the landlord who has been at the building almost daily to coordinate cleanup efforts, declined to comment. According to The Standard Manhattan Residential Directory, a volume of building information used by the real estate industry, the building’s owner, Janart Equities, bought the six-story structure in June 1972 for $225,000. The landlord has offered to cover living expenses for the displaced tenants, but only until Feb. 1. After several weeks in different hotels, Carol Wilson — in whose apartment the mercury was found — took up temporary residence in a West Village furnished apartment last weekend.

Early on Thursday morning Jan. 12 when Wilson, a longtime resident of the building and a leader of the Eighth St. Block Association, found a silvery liquid dripping from a ceiling into one of her bedrooms. When authorities arrived, they determined that liquid mercury had spilled into her apartment from above. Within hours, the building’s 15 residents had been evacuated.

The next day, a private environmental cleaning contractor hired by the building’s owners began removing the contents of one room from the apartment for incineration. Over the course of several days, Wilson stood on the street watching as more of her possessions were carried out for disposal. “I want it to come to some conclusion,” Wilson said recently, reflecting on life while living out of a suitcase. “I’ve been set adrift.”

Mark Catalina has lived above Wilson for several years. “There’s really no one to blame for this,” Catalina said Sunday night. Forced to live in a nearby hotel, he added, “It hasn’t been unpleasant because everybody’s been trying to get this solved.” Over the weekend Catalina learned that the floorboards of two rooms of his apartment would be removed this week as the search for mercury continued.

“We still do not know where it came from,” said D.E.P.’s Michaels said. “If we can find an additional source of it in the building somewhere, maybe that would lead us to it. At this point we just don’t know.”

Mercury was once commonly used in several artistic and industrial processes. For hundreds of years, artisans used a process known as mercury gilding, or fire gilding, to melt gold onto their artistic creations. In this process mercury was mixed with gold and the resulting amalgam was applied to an item (usually bronze, copper or silver) and heated. The mercury would vaporize, leaving a gold coating. However, heating the amalgam released toxic mercury vapors which ultimately proved deadly to the craftspeople utilizing the technique. The process was eventually banned and replaced by electroplating, in which an electric current was passed through the gold, adhering it to the surface.

The presence of mercury in the building could possibly be traced to two sculptors who resided there in the 1930s. The Greenwich Village Historical District Designation Report, issued by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1969, mentions that the building was home to two noted sculptors, Gaston Lachaise and Oronzio Maldarelli.

Lachaise, one of the most renowned sculptors of the early 20th century, was famous for his bronze renderings of the female form. Maldarelli was also a sculptor using bronze as a medium. However it is not known if they created any sculptures in the building using mercury.

Wilson consulted a cross-reference directory of early 20th-century Manhattan and found Lachaise did reside in the building in 1932 but on the top floor, several floors above her apartment.

Mercury was also widely used for industrial purposes, most commonly in the shaping of forms for felt hats. The term “mad as a hatter” derives from the neurological damage and early-onset senility suffered by hat makers working with the heavy metal. The hat industry, once largely concentrated around the Housatonic and Connecticut Rivers in the Northeast, contaminated those rivers and adjoining areas by dumping chemical waste into the water. Mercury would accumulate in the mud along the riverbanks, where a conversion process known as methydration would occur. The result was the creation of the most toxic and most biocompatable form of mercury, easily able to cross cell membranes and create toxicity problems in humans. However, it was not readily verifiable if any manufacturing or other industrial business ever existed above the first floor of the Eighth St. building, which was built in the 1890s.

Several days after the building’s evacuation, the Department of Health sent tenants a letter advising them to be tested at the Poison Control Center at Bellevue hospital. A urine test to detect the presence of mercury in their systems and a noninvasive sobriety and dexterity test was administered to determine any neurological or brain damage.

Last week Wilson heard some good news for a change when the Poison Control Center called to report that her “tests came back zero.” However, to be safe, she was asked to return for retesting, including a blood test, last Wednesday, which also came back negative.

“Mercury is a stubborn substance,” D.E.P.’s Michaels said on Monday. “The levels came down from where they had been originally measured and they leveled out. But, they’ve leveled out above where the acceptable level is. At this point, we’re trying to see if there are any additional sources by ventilating the building.”

“I’ll just be relieved when the cleanup’s over,” Wilson said after learning her medical results. “I just want to go home, sit in my chair, have a tea, watch television or read a book.”

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