No one knows how many schools in New Jersey have students and staff stepping onto potentially toxic floors every day.

But advocates and legislators are working to get a better handle on the reach of the problem, and ways to make sure it's not an issue for future generations.

The main threat is rubber-like gym floors that have been getting installed in school facilities since the 1960s, and as recently as the early 2000s.

A mercury catalyst was used during the manufacturing process to help them cure faster. But as the floors age and wear down in schools, cracks form and mercury vapors can be released into the air, according to experts.

"Mercury vapor can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, lungs, skin, and eyes, and is especially harmful to children, as well as to developing fetuses," said Drew Tompkins, director of advocacy and policy for the New Jersey Work Environment Council.

And poor ventilation makes mercury vapor more toxic, as well as warmer temperatures, putting both students and staff at risk.

But knowing which floors are potentially dangerous is not a simple task. Neither the date of a floor's installation nor the safety data sheets that accompany the floor, would give a school the information they need. And even if a floor is found to be laced with mercury, it's not a given that the floor will ever emit dangerous levels of mercury vapor.

"Many people may not be aware, but New Jersey has some of the oldest schools in the country," said Karyn Jarzyk, founding member of Early Childhood Education Advocates.

NJ proposals to limit mercury flooring

Advocates for change made their comments Thursday before the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee, which hosted discussions on two bills related to the issue of mercury-containing floors.

One measure would require that new flooring for schools and child care centers be certified mercury-free. In the case of a project involving floors that are already installed, there would have to be confirmation that the already existing material is free of mercury, or confirmation that the existing flooring material would be removed prior to the installation of new flooring.

Another bill would establish a task force to study the presence of mercury floors in schools and child care centers.

As part of this effort, advocates said the state should also create a database of all the schools with mercury-containing floors. That would require sampling work from each of the schools, and they'd have to report the data.

In February 2020, the New Jersey Department of Health released guidance to help schools determine whether their floor is a concern. The guidance advises schools to conduct inspections of their poured polyurethane floors, but it doesn't mandate the move. And it offers recommendations for schools whose air samples exceed hazardous threshold levels.

Months prior, the Schools Development Authority, which manages the construction and renovation of schools in 31 districts, implemented a rule that ensures no future projects include floors that contain the mercury catalyst.

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