I-Team: Hazardous Material Cleanup Costs Homeowners Thousands

By WBZ-TV Chief Correspondent Joe Shortsleeve

BOSTON (CBS) – We all know even a small amount of a hazardous material can be dangerous.

That’s why it makes sense to call for help if there’s an accident at home.

The I-Team found that can be an expensive call for homeowners to make, however.

Some are receiving bills from the state that reach into the thousands.

Carol Neville didn’t feel well and wanted to take her temperature, but couldn’t find her newer non-mercury thermometer.

When she shook the old fashioned version, it slipped from her hands and hit the floor.

WBZ-TV’s Joe Shortsleeve reports

A small amount of mercury, a known neurotoxin, ended up on Carol’s bedroom floor.

She called the Scituate Fire Department and couldn’t believe the level of the response.

“Eventually more people came in vehicles, cars, trucks, and then the big haz mat truck came,” she explained.

“They started putting on the white suits right up over their boots and over their heads, hoods, thanks, and masks.”

A couple of weeks later a bill for almost $2,100 arrived for cleaning up that broken thermometer.

“I was outraged because I felt duped,” said Carol.

“That was the word I used with the Chief. I felt that he must have known that was costing me money, thousands of dollars, and no one said a single word to me, ever, about it, from start to finish.”

The I-Team reviewed state records and found case after case of homeowners being billed thousands of dollars to clean up household accidents.

For example, one homeowner in Amherst was charged $6,500 to clean up insecticides, and another in Yarmouth was billed $1,400 for a broken mercury thermometer.

The I-Team found state law mandates a person, regardless of whether or not he is at fault, is liable for the costs of cleaning up a hazardous spill, no matter the size.

Scituate Fire Chief Richard Judge understands why Carol Neville was so upset, saying “In this financial time no one wants a bill that exorbitant for something they didn’t think was necessary, but it is the protocol.”

The Chief added, “We have to do our job, and we did it.”

State senator James Timility of Walpole doesn’t believe the law was meant to go after homeowners, but corporations responsible for large spills.

He would like to amend the law so homeowners aren’t penalized for essentially doing the right thing by trying to have trained professionals handled these substances.

When asked exactly what he is proposing, Timilty said “To allow the State Fire Marshall’s office and the Haz Mat team, if there is no negligence, not to charge them. We would encourage people to call, it is better for the environment, it’s better for posterity, and it’s better for the homeowner.”

The State Fire Marshall supports the changes outlined in Senator Timilty’s bill.

If you have a tip for the Iteam, you can contact us at iteam@wbztv.com .

  • chilitokid

    What’s gonna happen when people start throwing the new style light bulbs in the trash? And don’t be naive that it isn’t already happening.

  • eddwal50

    Nice the Fire Dept sends out 2 many fire men to clean up a little mercury yes I understand its a haz mat situation but they didn’t need to send out more then 3 guys

  • kroozer

    Like I’m going to call anyone if I break a mercury thermometer. It’s going in the trash. More over reaction by the local FD to justify their jobs.

    • Lsmith

      I agree completely! I too would never think of calling the fire department if I broke a thermometer, or if I spilled some pesticide in my home. I would simply pick it up carefully and throw it out. These people simply overreacted and are now paying the price. Hope people pay attention to this story and don’t make the same mistake this woman did. Chilitokid is right about the new light bulbs. People are just going to throw them in the trash when the bulbs burn out.

  • Joe

    Let me know when the state pulls their heads out of their arrses and changes this ridiculous law. Until then, I will be throwing my mercury and light bulbs into an almost empty gallon of old lead paint then throwing it in my dumpster. Don’t worry, I’ll put some duct tape over the lid so it hopefully won’t spill.

  • tsal

    Does anyone posting here work with hazmat. Do you know what it costs to dispose of hazardous materials or what is involved in their cleanup. Do you know the minute amount of mercury it takes to raise the air contamination to above recommended levels. I wonder what price tag if any Carol would put on the cleanup if she knew the potential harm the mercury left behind from improper cleanup could cause to her or any family member. As far as continuing to improperly dispose of dangerous material, do you enjoy eating food that contains carcinogens. Is that what you choose for your children or their children. Or don’t you care.

    • Joe

      I was being somewhat sarcastic but not completely. They put these commercials on radio saying “dont throw mercury in the trash” but they regret to inform you that your responsible for the cost. Not sure and call me crazy but I believe that’s called false advertising. The other problem is the pendulum that is America. Years ago people would dump waste oil down drains. well, we finally realized hey, that’s a really stupid idea maybe we should stop that. Now the pendulum, instead of stopping in the middle has swung full bore tilt the other way. its just as out of control as it was the other way. It needs to come back closer to the middle.

      • tsal

        I absolutely agree. I did some further checking and the cost to dispose of this stuff is really that high. From what I understand, mercury is sent to Canada where it is cleaned and then sent back here to reuse. But because of regulation and the staff and equipment needed to meet the regulation – which as you say swung far too much to one side – it makes the person want to do the wrong thing.

  • MCS

    Sigh—of course we CARE but she over reacted by calling
    911 about a broken thermometer and admits now that she should just have put it in a container and waited for Hazardous Waste Day. Next thing people will be calling HazMat to pick up one of those “efficient” new light bulbs that contain mercury, how that’s progress escapes me.
    I save all my used batteries for hazardous waste day and recycle religiously but we have completely lost our common sense when guys are suiting up to clean up a Thermometer!
    We eat food that we trust is safe. We drink water that we trust is safe and that’s all we can do. We seem to think we can prevent any and all unpleasantness, disease, accident etc.. Not that we shouldn’t try, we should but this is ridiculous. Nuts even. Just my opinion.

    • tsal

      would the town take mercury as a hazardous waste? It would make sense but it typically has to be placed in a container with oil to keep it from evaporating and fumes escaping. That’s the minimal solution. There are very strict rules on how it should be packed and those are what have to be followed. Although I think regulation has gone to the extreme, the rules on how to handle hazardous waste are tested and true.

      Judging from some of the comments here it didn’t much seem that people cared about how to dispose of hazardous waste.

      Joe is very correct about dumping oil. PCBs and askarels are showing up everywhere and continue to be a problem.

    • tsal

      I was thinking about your comment that suiting up for a thermometer was overkill. The mercury from just three standard thermometers will take the level above recommended limits in a room. These people are handing the mercury. You can do that – although I wouldn’t advise it – but I don’t think anyone has the right to tell a fireman or any hazmat person that something that is dangerous should not be handled with the greatest of care.

      • aug2992

        Adding oil to the mercury is not a recommended practice. It makes the mercury much more difficult to recover and then you have to also dispose of the oil. In order to keep vapors down, simply close or seal the container. Like I said before, the risk to someone exposed to mercury while cleaning up the amount released from thermometer is negligable. If someone is not comfortable doing the cleanup on their own, they can call for help. If they call the fire department and the hazmat team responds, they will get a bill for an incomplete cleanup and may still have to hire someone else. I am concerned about people disposing of the mercury impropery. In order to avoild that, they need an incentive to do the right thing. A $2000 bill is not an incentive.

      • tsal

        agu2992 – my husband is also in the industry and is very leary of anyone who doesn’t know what to do cleaning it up on their own. He was also surprised that the instructions didn’t include adding oil to the mercury to stop evaporation once it is contained. The instructions do say to call a licensed company – have you seen their prices?

        My comments were for the most part in regard to the lack of concern and being in the industry I would be surprised if that didn’t also concern you.

      • aug2992

        tsal, google mercury thermometer clean up and you will find that every state and federal environmental agency has the instructions posted to complete the cleanup yourself, Mercury is toxic, but in the time it takes to clean up the spill, there would be no risk. Long term exposure is a different story The hazmat team is not capable of doing a thorough cleanup. They only remove the visible beads. And yes, the mercury vapor levels still remain high after they are done and leave. I work in the industry and am very familiar with these incidents.

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