HOUSTON, TX – A 19-year-old man accused of spilling mercury at several Houston locations stole the liquid metal from an abandoned business, tried to sell it in small amounts to people for $20 and spilled some as he played with it in his hands, according to court records.
Christopher Lee Melder remained jailed Tuesday on bonds totaling $5,000. He is charged with burglary of a building and the illegal disposal of hazardous waste. The mercury spill led to about 60 people needing to be decontaminated as a precaution because there had been trace amounts of mercury near their feet.
Christina Garza, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Houston office, said it appears the mercury spill was not intentional.
“Preliminarily, there was no nefarious intent behind it,” Garza said.
Court records don't list an attorney for Melder, who is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday.
Authorities allege Melder kicked down the door of Geochem Laboratories Inc. on Houston’s west side on Friday and stole about 11 pounds (5 kilograms) of liquid mercury. He's also accused of taking personal and company checks from the business.
He then went to a Walmart and Shell gas station about half a mile from the abandoned business and started approaching people.
Melder “was selling the mercury in small amounts for $20 each and was able to make two sales to two different citizens,” according to court documents. Garza said the FBI is still looking for the buyers.
Melder “played with the mercury with his hands during his sales and allowed the mercury to spill onto the pavement but made no attempt for cleanup,” the court documents said. It is unclear if Melder knew he was handling mercury or understood how toxic it is.
Officials believe the spilled mercury was spread by people who unknowingly stepped on it and tracked it across the parking lots outside the Walmart, the gas station and a nearby Sonic Drive-In, said Houston health department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal.
Additional testing detected mercury inside the Walmart, including at a McDonald's in the store. Possible contamination was also being investigated at a nearby convenience store called Bucky's.
All four businesses remained closed on Tuesday and it might be several more days before cleanup efforts are completed, Villarreal said.
Officials didn’t detect the mercury spills at these businesses until Sunday. Villarreal said less than a pint of mercury was spilled and there is a very low health risk for the public.
This wasn’t the only spill linked to Melder.
At around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, deputies with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office were dispatched to a hospital in the northern Houston suburb of Spring, where someone getting treated for a lacerated finger spilled mercury inside the emergency room.
“While being assessed by a triage nurse, approximately five ounces of a liquid substance later determined to be mercury fell out of his pocket and backpack, causing it to spill to the floor,” CHI St. Luke’s Health, which owns the hospital, said in a statement.
Deputies tried to identify the 19-year-old man accused of the hospital spill but he didn’t have an identification card and he provided an incorrect name that didn’t return any criminal history, the sheriff’s office said. Deputies later determined this person was Melder.
“At the time of the incident, deputies were unable to identify sufficient probable cause to file criminal charges against the man,” the sheriff’s office said.
Melder claimed he had a female accomplice, but investigators have not found such an individual, according to court documents.
He was also charged on an outstanding felony drug possession warrant.
Mercury is a heavy, silvery naturally occurring liquid that is used in such things as thermometers and batteries. It's a potent neurotoxin, but health effects depend on how much mercury a person is exposed to, how long they're exposed and their age. Small children are most vulnerable.
Short-term exposure to metallic mercury vapors — such as from spills — can cause lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increased blood pressure and heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation. Exposure to high levels can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetuses.
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