A proposed New Jersey law aims to ensure that the threat of dangerous mercury vapors is not presented by any floors that get installed in New Jersey schools and child care centers moving forward.

The threat already exists at countless schools across the Garden State, but advocates say the current proposal is at least shining a spotlight on the issue, even though it may not go far enough.

Under the bill advanced by the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee, flooring material that contains mercury would not be able to used during the construction or renovation of a school or child care center. Also, any school projects impacting an already existing floor would have to result in proof that the existing floor is mercury-free, or that it will be removed completely.

"Our schools and child care centers must be safe spaces for children to learn and grow," said Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese, D-Bergen, a sponsor of the measure. "Ensuring they are free from harmful chemicals like mercury will keep these spaces safe and protect the health of children as well as staff."

Inhaling mercury vapor can affect one's nervous, digestive, and immune systems, as well as one's lungs and kidneys, Calabrese's office noted. Minimal exposure could cause a sore threat, cough, and headaches.

The threat of mercury vapor is present with synthetic rubber-like floors that had been manufactured with a mercury catalyst in order to make them cure faster. They've been getting installed since the 1960s, and installation has been documented as recently as 2006, according to Healthy Schools Now, part of the New Jersey Work Environment Council.

"Some of our schools are very antiquated and they don't have the proper ventilation system in place," said Heather Sorge, organizer for Healthy Schools Now.

As the floors age and deteriorate, cracks form and mercury vapors can be released into the air, advocates say. Poor ventilation makes mercury vapor more toxic, Sorge said, as do warmer temperatures.

Healthy Schools Now has been pushing for a statewide assessment of these floors, because a floor's installation date, and even the safety data sheets that come with the floor, wouldn't indicate whether the floor was prepared with mercury. Two end-products could look exactly the same, with one being potentially dangerous and the other being perfectly safe.

"It's probably going to be a problem for some time because there's an unknown amount of these flooring spaces out there that have to be addressed," said Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

If a school were to determine that their floor is, in fact, a threat, ripping it up isn't the only possible solution, Spiller said. There are mitigation options — proper ventilation, for example — that could take care of any mercury vapors that may be emitted.

In February 2020, the New Jersey Department of Health released guidance to help school's determine whether their floor is a concern, and to get a better idea of the reach of the problem. The guidance advises schools to conduct inspections of their poured polyurethane floors, but it doesn't mandate the move.

Months prior, the Schools Development Authority implemented a rule that ensures no future projects include floors that contain the mercury catalyst. The authority, which funds and manages construction and renovation of school in 31 New Jersey districts, announced it would be requiring an additional certification from manufacturers that can guarantee a mercury-free product.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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