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Mercury Use in Paints to Be Curbed : Health: Government and industry announce an agreement. Serious dangers of indoor fumes, especially to children and fetuses, are cited.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration and the nation’s paint manufacturers, responding to growing concern that mercury fumes pose serious health risks, announced agreement Friday to quickly eliminate mercury from indoor, water-based paints.

The compromise was hailed by some consumer groups as an important but belated step to reduce the public health threat posed by mercury, particularly to children and fetuses.

Others said that the voluntary phase-out, to be completed by Aug. 20, is insufficient because manufacturers will continue to use mercury as a preservative in outdoor, water-based paints. Under the agreement, such paints must bear warning labels beginning Aug. 20.

Mercury is an ingredient in about 30% of all water-based latex paints, officials said. It is not used in oil-based paints.

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The agreement, which follows two months of intensive negotiations, reverses a 1976 Environmental Protection Agency decision that allowed manufacturers to continue using mercury in water-based paints.

At the time, the agency said that not enough was known about the effects of mercury and that manufacturers had “no effective alternatives.” Such alternatives now are available, officials said, and at no higher cost than mercury.

Federal health and environmental officials also disclosed Friday that they are examining the use of mercury in such construction products as acoustical plaster, adhesives and spackling compounds.

Of special concern, they said, are people who paint for a living and, therefore, may face unusual exposure to mercury fumes.

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The government-industry agreement comes after the near-fatal poisoning of a 4-year-old Southfield, Mich., boy in July, 1989.

Shortly after applying 17 gallons of paint throughout their home, the child’s parents found the boy with a high fever and barely able to move his limbs. He underwent a blood-cleaning technique similar to kidney dialysis and is now recovering, according to Dr. William Roper, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The paint used by the boy’s parents contained an extraordinarily high concentration of mercury--about 930 parts per million, or more than four times the allowable limit of mercury for interior paint.

The National Paint and Coatings Assn. estimated that there are between 1 million and 3 million gallons of interior latex paint “in the distribution pipeline” that, for no clear reasons, contain more than the allowable limit of 200 parts per million of mercury.

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Acute mercury poisoning can cause serious damage to the nervous system and kidneys.

Its symptoms include tremors, especially of the limbs; pinkness and peeling of the hands, feet and nose; excessive perspiration; insomnia; emotional instability; a decrease in motor skills; short-term memory impairment, and headaches.

Roper advised parents to be especially vigilant when young children and babies are around paint because mercury fumes are “heavy” and tend to settle at ground level.

He and the EPA officials said that their agencies will continue to conduct and monitor human and laboratory studies to further clarify mercury’s deleterious health effects.

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Another major unknown factor is the rate at which mercury vapors are released after paint is applied. The EPA plans to study that phenomenon as well.

“There are many gaps in our knowledge,” Roper said.

An EPA fact sheet, however, warns that low concentrations of mercury “may be present in the indoor air for months following painting.”

Roper and the EPA officials, led by Linda J. Fisher, assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, urged concerned citizens to “ventilate” recently painted homes “as long and as much as possible.”

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Richard Tinsworth, director of the EPA’s special review division, said it appears that mercury is capable of remaining in the body for long periods of times.

Officials said that information about mercury content in existing paints is available from the National Pesticide Telecommunication Network, which has a toll-free number: 1-800-858-7378. State health departments and EPA regional offices also have such information.

Nationwide, about 1,000 paint manufacturers produce 500 million gallons of house paint annually, according to officials of the $12-billion-a-year industry.

Among those who hailed Friday’s announcement but urged the government to go further was the National Toxics Campaign Fund.

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“Mercury has been recognized as a powerful poison for thousands of years,” said its director, Gary Cohen. “So waiting for kids to get sick . . . is not acceptable.”


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