FBI: 19-year-old arrested, charged in Houston mercury spill

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In this Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019 photo, officials respond to the scene of a mercury spill on the intersection of Westview Drive and West Sam Houston Parkway North in Houston. A person has been taken into custody for questioning after dozens of people were decontaminated as a precaution due to trace amounts of mercury spilled at three locations in Houston, the FBI said Monday. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

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HOUSTON (AP) — A 19-year-old man has been arrested after trace amounts of mercury spilled at three locations in Houston, leading dozens of people to be decontaminated as a precaution, FBI said Monday.

The agency’s Houston office said on Twitter that Christopher Lee Melder has been charged with burglary and unlawful disposal of hazardous material. The FBI announced early Monday that he was taken into custody for questioning in connection with the spill. He is also charged on an outstanding felony drug possession warrant.

It wasn’t immediately known whether he had a lawyer and authorities didn’t immediately say why the mercury was spilled.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena said at a news conference Sunday evening that the situation was under control and crews were cleaning up the spills. There’s no timetable for when the cleanup will be complete.

Someone called 911 around 11:15 a.m. Sunday to report a white liquid on the ground, Pena said. Officials later determined that mercury was spilled outside a Walmart, a Sonic Drive-In and a nearby gas station. All three locations were evacuated and between 30 and 60 people were asked to take decontamination showers as a precaution, Pena said.

The fire chief added that one woman was taken to a hospital as a precaution because she was pregnant.

Police said it’s unclear how or when the toxic metal was spilled. Federal and local investigators were trying to determine whether it was intentional.

Authorities also said they’re looking into reports that someone checked into a hospital Friday in Harris County, where Houston is located, claiming to have been exposed to mercury.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mercury exists in three forms. Elemental mercury is liquid at room temperature. It is used in some thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs and electrical switches. High mercury vapor concentrations can cause severe lung damage, the CDC said.

Dr. David Persse with the Houston Health Department said that because all three spills happened outdoors, the risk to people in the area is minimal.

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