{short description of image}


In late July 2000, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) was informed of accidental mercury spills that had occurred in a number of homes in the Chicago area. Nicor Gas Company had hired subcontractors to move gas meters from inside the homes to the outside for easier access. During the removals, mercury was released from the regulators in the gas meters. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions the Department has received from the public.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a metal that occurs naturally in the environment in several forms. In the metallic form, mercury is a shiny silver, odorless liquid. It is commonly used in batteries, thermometers, barometers and electrical switches. The mercury in the gas meters was used to regulate the pressure of natural gas entering homes.

How might I be exposed to mercury?

If mercury was accidentally spilled in your home during the removal of a gas meter, you may have been exposed to it. You can be exposed to mercury by touching it or breathing mercury vapor in the air. Since mercury evaporates at room temperature, it can enter your body when you breathe. This is the most likely route of exposure and the most hazardous, since the mercury you breathe in air enters your blood and rapidly goes to other parts of your body. Only a small amount of mercury passes through the skin after touching it.

How can mercury affect my health?

Mercury affects the nervous system including the brain. Symptoms associated with mercury exposures include personality changes (irritability, shyness, nervousness), tremors, changes in vision or hearing, loss of appetite, insomnia, and short-term memory loss. If you are exposed to high enough levels over a long period of time, you may also have damage to your kidneys.

Is there a medical test to determine if I have been exposed to mercury?

Yes. Mercury is easily measured in urine. Urine tests will show the amount of mercury to which you have been exposed for about the last 30 days. Mercury also can be tested in hair and blood.

What is Nicor Gas doing to determine if my home has elevated levels of mercury?

Nicor Gas has contracted with professional companies to test the air in affected homes for mercury. If mercury is found at elevated levels, a cleanup of your home will be performed. If the levels are high enough, you may have to move out of your home for a short time while the cleanup is being done. You also may be asked to submit urine samples to determine how much mercury has entered your body.

If I have elevated levels of mercury in my home, who is paying for the tests and other expenses?

Nicor Gas has committed to pay for all expenses associated with medical and environmental testing and cleanup of mercury in the affected homes. The company also will pay for any personal items (clothes, carpeting, drapes, etc.) that may have to be thrown away.

What is the Illinois Department of Public Health doing to protect my health?

IDPH has provided advice to Nicor Gas about air sampling and urine sampling. The Department is reviewing all sampling results and making recommendations to homeowners. After a cleanup is completed, Nicor Gas will take additional air samples to determine if mercury has dropped to a level that is no longer a hazard. IDPH will review these follow-up air sampling results and notify residents of its findings.

Who can I contact if I have questions about a cleanup?

Nicor Gas representatives are scheduling air sampling and cleanups. You may contact the company at 888-288-8110.

Who do I contact if I want to be tested for mercury?

Your family doctor can write an order for you to have your urine tested for mercury. Nicor Gas has agreed to pay for these expenses. You also may contact the Cook County Hospital Center for Children’s Environmental Health at 312-633-5310 (ask for Ann Naughton or Jackie Wuellner) to have your urine sampled.

If I have questions about mercury, may I contact the Illinois Department of Public Health?

You may contact IDPH by calling 866-282-2840. Staff from the Department’s Toxicology Section will answer your questions about mercury.

Where can I get additional information?

If you have access to a computer, information about mercury and about this spill is available on several Web sites:

idph online home
Environmental Health Home

Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
Questions or Comments