COLBERT - A man and woman in southern Oklahoma were hospitalized with mercury poisoning last week after engaging in what officials said is a rare and dangerous science experiment - using mercury to pull gold from electronic equipment, apparently for profit. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials were called to Colbert to rid the couple's home of mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause long-term damage to the brain and nervous system.
A man and a woman, whose names have not been released, were hospitalized after inhaling large quantities of the element, said Bryan County Sheriff Bill Sturch. Lynn Chambers, the cousin of the male victim, said the man is on life support in a Tulsa hospital. The female victim has been released from a hospital in Durant, Chambers said.
The situation is calling attention to the difficulty of disposing of mercury in Oklahoma. Only Oklahoma City and Midwest City provide free and regular access to a hazardous waste facility that can dispose of mercury safely.
"It's a tremendous environmental mess," said Lee McGoodwin, a toxicologist and managing director of the Oklahoma Poison Control Center. She added: "Elemental mercury is not something to play with, and I don't know why these people had such large amounts."
Gold is found in small amounts in some electronic equipment. To isolate the gold in the circuit boards, the couple put the boards on a frying pan on their kitchen stove, said Eric Delgado, on-scene coordinator for the EPA. They poured mercury over the electronics. Mercury attached itself to the gold and helped the couple separate the precious metal from the circuit boards. The couple then heated the gold-mercury substance until the mercury evaporated, leaving only the gold behind.
Mercury enters the body and causes poisoning most easily when in its vapor form. The element affects the central nervous system and can cause irreversible harm if a person is exposed for a length of time. With limited exposures, effects can be lasting but are more likely to lessen or disappear.
On March 19, the couple called a poison-control hot line complaining of severe respiratory distress, Delgado said. "They were irritable. They had some pain in their stomachs. They thought that they could get that to pass, and this wasn't going away," he said. "They were having even more difficulty breathing."
They were first taken to a hospital in Durant. The man was later taken to a Tulsa hospital.
"They were trying to gather up that gold for resale," Delgado said, adding that the victims "were fairly poor and they were desperate for money."
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