Herald JournalHerald and Journal, Dec. 30, 2002

Clancy, only mercury dog in the United States, visits HLWW

By Lynda Jensen

Half a gram of mercury can't hide from the super-sensitive nose of Clancy, a chocolate and black labrador mix owned by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The dog, one of three in the world and the only mercury detecting dog in the US, visited all three Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted buildings in December ­ finding plenty of the toxin mercury.

"We recovered a total of approximately 18.5 pounds of elemental mercury at the school," commented Carol Hubbard, Clancy's dog handler, who is also a mercury specialist for the MPCA.

This included assorted vials of elemental mercury totaling about 17.3 pounds, about 40 lab thermometers, a barometer, seven Bohl's Law demonstration tubes, a molecular vibration tube, two mercury switches, a mercury game, three blood pressure cuffs and seven fever thermometers from the nurse's stations.

"In addition, we'll be recycling about two pounds of mercury compounds," she said. "Quite a haul!" she added.

Mercury is not considered a danger to school children, although is is common.

Most of the mercury at schools is from broken fever thermometers, and broken fluorescent tubes, she said. And, "forgotten" mercury in drawers and cabinets can give off vapor into the air or get into the waste stream.

This will be cleaned up and taken care of, said High School Principal Mike Day.

The MPCA's purpose for bringing Clancy into the schools is to educate students about the dangers of mercury, as well as to intercept it before it ends up in Minnesota streams and lakes.

Dangerous ­ and common

Mercury is a nerve toxin. It affects the brain, spinal cord, kidneys, and liver, Hubbard said.

Mercury poisoning causes nerve damage, and miners working underground who used to be afflicted by it would babble to themselves, and develop uncontrollable shaking of their hands from the nerve damage, Hubbard said.

In fact, the term "mad as a hatter" and the character featured in Alice in Wonderland is actually referring to mercury poisoning.

During the 1800s, hat fitters would use mercury to shape men's hats. This would eventually poison them, hence the term "mad hatter."

Hubbard gave a detailed and lively presentation to students about where mercury can be found and how it affects people and wildlife.

The first question students asked was if Clancy is or will become poisoned by mercury.

The dog has his blood tested every three months, and so far the mercury levels are below detectable limits, she said.

Sniffing it out

Clancy's job is to sniff out the mercury. His discoveries are confirmed by an electronic detecting device.

Most of Clancy's time is spent visiting schools and colleges, educating the public about the dangers of mercury.

In fact, more than half of the schools that Clancy visits are found with mercury.

As a puppy, Clancy was originally chosen by the St. Paul Police Department out of 200 dogs from humane societies in the Twin Cities.

There has been approximately 210 pounds of mercury removed from 38 of 57 schools visited by Clancy in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

No reason to have it

Mercury does not serve a purpose any longer, Hubbard said.

"There is no longer any reason to have mercury (other than energy-saving fluorescent lights) in schools. Effective alternatives exist for all mercury-bearing laboratory and health-care equipment," Hubbard said.

Interestingly enough, the Department of Defense has 4,000 tons of mercury, according to Hubbard. What it plans to do with it, she doesn't know, Hubbard said.

Major sources of mercury in the environment include coal burning power plants and volcanoes, which naturally release it into the atmosphere.

But where does mercury pollution of schools come from?

"Schools typically have mercury-bearing thermometers and barometers in their laboratories and mercury-bearing blood pressure cuffs and fever thermometers in their nursing stations," Hubbard said.

Getting rid of it before it hits lakes, streams

The "Mercury Free Zone" program, along with Clancy, is working well.

"Unfortunately, mercury finds its way into Minnesota's lakes and streams, the fish that live in them, and the people who eat those fish," Hubbard said.

"When mercury contaminates lakes and streams, bacteria can incorporate the mercury into the organic compound methylmercury, a very toxic substance," Hubbard said.

Mercury, which never breaks down or goes away, can accumulate in fish via the food chain. "When we eat these fish, we run the risk of being poisoned by mercury," she said.

"That's why it's imperative we do whatever we can to reduce mercury contamination of the environment," she said.

Hubbard recommended eating controlled quantities of fish, whether taken from fresh water or commercially fished and for sale on store shelves.

Some people who eat fish every day have been poisoned from mercury, she said.


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