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My kitchen was a hazmat zone

Brian Wybenga

Back in December, there was a toxic spill in Detroit.

In my kitchen.

It was a Sunday morning. My kids were watching a cartoon. I was reading the paper. And my husband, who does some small-time antiques dealing in his spare time, was monkeying around with one of his treasures in the kitchen.

“It was an old blood-pressure cuff, in a self-contained metal box with a flip-top lid, probably from the 1950s,” he recalled.

“I was in our breakfast nook at a counter space, kind of checking this thing out, trying to figure out how it was put together … and then you came in the room and said, is that mercury all over the place?”

It was. About two tablespoons’ worth.

Credit Brian Wybenga
A hazmat cleanup specialist with Arch Environmental rips up part of our kitchen floor, looking for mercury.

We called Poison Control, which told us we should get the kids out of the house, and the state Department of Environmental Quality, which put us in touch with a toxicologist from the Michigan Department of Community Health.

“We get more concerned about children being exposed to the mercury vapors, because children are shorter than we are, so their breathing zone is going to be closer to the floor, which is typically where the mercury ends up, and children are not as developed – physiologically, biologically yet, as far as being able to ward off any toxic effects of that,” said Christina Bush.

Bush says she hears the same things we heard over and over – mercury! So fun to play with! I remember rolling it around in my hands in chemistry class!

The thing is, mercury isn’t all that dangerous to hold. Bush says you can even swallow it, and it’ll usually just pass right through you.

“But when you breathe in the mercury vapors, and they get absorbed into the bloodstream through your lungs, that means they’re in the body,” Bush said.

So, I packed up our daughters and headed to a neighbor’s house while Bush talked Brian through the initial clean-up. That took about 12 hours.

“There were thousands of beads," said Brian, "and they were really difficult to clean up.”

Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Some of the contaminated items from our house, destined for the toxic waste dump.

After that initial cleanup, the health department came out to take readings. But the levels were still too high for the kids to come home, so, we hired a hazmat crew.

Five days after the spill, the health department gave the all-clear for us to move back home. In the end, that two tablespoons of mercury cost us $5,200 to clean up. We lost probably another $1,000 in items that were contaminated and had to be thrown out. And, no: Our homeowner’s insurance did not cover the cost.

Antique medical equipment will not be crossing our threshold again.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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