Las Vegas Sun

June 24, 2019

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Teen unaware of mercury risk

As he continued to recover at Sunrise Hospital on Wednesday, Michael Coleman explained that he played with as much as a quart of mercury because it reminded him of the metallic goo that oozed from the villain in "Terminator 2."

The 17-year-old said he ran it through his hands. He swatted it so that little beads flew through the air and into his mouth. He played with the silvery liquid for a few weeks.

"It was cool because it would be weird when it slipped through your fingers," he said. "You could see your reflection in it. It kept me occupied for a long time."

The whole time, the Western High School sophomore said, he thought he was playing with paint. He had no idea he was slowly poisoning himself and contaminating his home.

"I've never been good at science," said Michael, an aspiring artist. "That was pretty much my sleep class."

It's now clear to the teen -- and his family -- that the liquid wasn't paint.

On Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency was close to clearing out the four-bedroom house on Saylor Way near Jones Boulevard and Washington Avenue, where Coleman and his grandmother, 71-year-old Lorraine Estes, reside. Everything down to the home's washer and dryer has been removed and tested for contamination.

The family has lived since Saturday in a motel room paid for by the local chapter of the American Red Cross. There are funds available to put the family up until their home is decontaminated, the EPA said.

It could take a month and cost about $500,000 to clean up the home, though those numbers could go up or down depending on how much mercury is in the walls and ventilation system, said EPA spokesman Mark Merchant.

A recent mercury cleanup of a home in Fontana, Calif., for example, cost $60,000 and was completed in two weeks, Merchant said. The EPA cleans up about 200 mercury-contaminated sites each year.

Michael's mother, Karen, described her son as a good boy who rarely gets into major trouble.

"He's the type that sits home, no girlfriend, just playing video games and drawing," she said.

But sometimes trouble finds him. Once, Michael fell off his roof and broke his feet. Another time, he stumbled onto a screw attached to a board so large that the family had to use a power tool to unscrew his leg before they could transport him to the hospital, Karen Coleman said.

"When he gets bored, he gets snoopy," she said.

That's what happened in late October or early November, Michael said, when his family went to California and he was left alone.

He decided to snoop through stuff belonging to his great uncle, Eddie Lattimer, who had recently moved out of the home.

Michael said he found a small glass jar, similar to one that would hold olives, but this one contained several inches of silver liquid.

First, he took it outside to the back yard, where he poured a little bit and watched the liquid form into tiny balls on the ground.

"I poured it on the ground, so just in case it exploded the house would be OK," Michael said.

The liquid seemed innocuous enough, so Michael took it inside, where he and friends then played with it until Thanksgiving, when Estes threw the jar in the trash.

But around that time, Michael said, he developed a rash all over his body. An emergency room doctor told Estes that it was a simple allergic reaction. Soon, Estes said, the rash faded.

But over the last few weeks, Michael felt his energy draining. He began to miss school and lock himself up in his room, which had the highest levels of mercury contamination in the home. His fingers tingled, and he couldn't run.

Mercury poisoning, which comes from exposure to the vapors from the liquified metal, causes personality changes, nervousness and trembling.

Michael said he found refuge by taking as many as six hot baths a day.

"I felt good when I was in there,' he said.

Finally, on Friday night, Karen Coleman arrived from California. While some family members were worried that Michael had developed diabetes, Karen Coleman had done research on the Internet and wondered if his illness was somehow related to the silver liquid he had been playing with more than a month before. She wondered if it was mercury.

"I wasn't sure,' she said. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist. It was on a whim that I checked.'

Estes said her 72-year-old older brother, Lattimer, is in a California hospital suffering from heart problems but was devastated when he heard his great nephew had found the mercury he had kept from the 1960s, when he worked in a gold mine.

The lives of all the family members have been turned upside down by the contamination. Clark County Health District officials have contacted 11 of them as well as the family of one neighborhood boy who came in contact with the liquified metal. Coleman poured some of the liquid into their hands so they could see how it beaded up.

Some of the relatives are from Southern California, including Michael's 15-year-old brother, Charlie, and they will be tested this week for potential poisoning because they visited Michael for Thanksgiving.

To date no one else reportedly has tested positive for mercury poisoning, officials said. However, contamination levels 100 times higher than acceptable have been found in the home and 30 times higher than acceptable were found in the Estes' car. Estes and Coleman were given hospital scrubs to wear home after Michael was admitted to the hospital on Saturday.

Michael said he is feeling much better, and he can shuffle short distances through the hospital. But he said he still feels tingling in his hands and his systolic blood pressure continues to spike as high as 197. He said he has to take about 12 pills every eight hours.

"I have to walk real slow or I fall," the teen said. "I have to remember not to laugh or get mad or get sad."

His emotions have been more volatile, he said, partly because of his illness and partly because he is still scared that the tingling in his hands won't stop.

"I try not to think about it," he said. "That's why I'm always trying to talk to people or watch TV."

Sun reporter

Ed Koch contributed to this story.