The Bush administration and the nation's paint manufacturers, responding to growing concern that mercury fumes pose serious health risks, yesterday announced agreement to quickly eliminate mercury from indoor, water-based paints.
Some consumer groups hailed the compromise as an important but belated step to reduce the public health threat posed by mercury, particularly to children and fetuses.
Others said the voluntary phase-out, to be completed by Aug. 20, is insufficient because manufacturers will still use mercury in outdoor, water-based paints. Under the agreement, such paints must bear warning labels beginning Aug. 20.
Mercury is used as a preservative in about 30 percent of all water-based latex paints, officials said. It is not used in oil-based paints.
The government-industry agreement comes after the near-fatal poisoning of a 4-year-old Southfield, Mich., boy in July 1989.
Shortly after applying 17 gallons of paint throughout their home, the child's parents found the boy with a high fever and barely able to move his limbs. He underwent a blood-cleansing technique similar to kidney dialysis and is recovering, according to Dr. William Roper, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The paint used by the boy's parents contained an extraordinarily high concentration of mercury -- about 930 parts per million, or more than four times the allowable limit of mercury for interior paint.
The National Paint and Coatings Association estimated there are between 1 million and 3 million gallons of interior latex paint "in the distribution pipeline" that, for no clear reasons, contain more than the allowable limit of 200 parts per million of mercury.
Acute mercury poisoning can cause serious damage to the nervous system and kidneys. Its symptoms include tremors, especially of the limbs; pinkness and peeling of the hands, feet and nose; excessive perspiration; insomnia; emotional instability; a decrease in motor skills; short-term memory impairment; and headaches.
Roper advised parents to be especially vigilant when young children and babies are around paint because mercury fumes are "heavy" and tend to settle at ground level.
Another major unknown factor is the rate at which mercury vapors are released after paint is applied. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to study that phenomenon as well. "There are many gaps in our knowledge," Roper said.
An EPA fact sheet, however, warns that low concentrations of mercury "may be present in the indoor air for months following painting."
Roper and the EPA officials, led by Linda J. Fisher, assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances, urged concerned citizens to "ventilate" recently painted homes "as long and as much as possible."
Officials said information about mercury content in existing paints is available from the National Pesticide Telecommunication Network, which has a toll-free number: (800) 858-7378. State health departments and EPA regional offices also have such information.