A family in Mulino, Oregon was found to have elevated blood mercury levels during routine medical screening. The healthcare provider notified the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), who in turn alerted the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ). ODEQ conducted an initial assessment of the family's home and after discovering the presence of mercury, ODEQ requested EPA's assistance. On February 9, 2023, EPA found elevated levels of mercury throughout the residence, with multiple items of clothing, carpeting, and sink drains producing mercury vapor readings above the residential action level of 1 µg/m3 on field screening instrumentation.
The source of mercury exposure was not immediately apparent, though on the second entry into the home, EPA and their contractors found skin whitening face cream imported from Mexico that was emitting mercury vapors above 200 µg/m3. Inorganic and organic mercury are absorbed by humans via ingestion, inhalation and dermal exposure, and are toxic to the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. Symptoms of mercury exposure include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Kidney effects have been reported, ranging from increased protein in the urine to kidney failure (WHO 2017).
Items contaminated with mercury were removed from the home, and heated then vented in cycles to volatize mercury. Per national guidelines, most possessions with mercury vapor levels less than 3 µg/m3 were kept by the homeowners, along with some possessions in bags with vapor levels less than 6 µg/m3. Any items with concentrations greater than 6 µg/m3 were disposed of.
After cycles of heating and venting, the home was screened over an eight-hour period for ambient mercury vapor in five locations simulating where both an adult and a child would breathe. The average of mercury readings was 0.607 µg/m3, which is below the residential action level (1 µg/m3). On 2/11/2023, OHA cleared the home for reoccupation by the family based on screening results. Samples from each of the three containers of skin cream (brand "Teatrical") were collected by both EPA and ODEQ, and analyzed for total metals, including mercury, and VOCs. All three jars of imported whitening cream were found to contain high concentrations of mercury.