Minnesota introduces nation’s first mercury sniffer dog

Clancy, the US’s first ever mercury sniffer dog will be used to detect mercury in Minnesota’s schools, as part of a programme to remove all elemental mercury and mercury-containing chemicals by 2003.

The Mercury-Free Zone programme, co-ordinated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) aims to reduce the risk of potential mercury exposure to students, school staff and the environment, and to educate students and staff about the dangers of mercury. So far, the programme has removed over 210 pounds of elemental mercury, mercury-containing chemicals and mercury-bearing equipment from 38 of the 57 participating schools.

The new member of the MPCA team, a lively Labrador cross, was picked from more than 200 dogs from local animal sanctuaries, and will visit schools in the state in order to locate spilled and hidden sources of mercury so that it can be cleaned up and disposed of. According to the MPCA, Clancy was chosen for his enthusiasm and persistence, and he has been taught using techniques similar to those used to train drug-detecting dogs. He can now detect mercury deposits as small as 0.5 grams – the equivalent to the amount of mercury in a thermometer.

The project is modelled on a similar venture in Sweden, which has used two dogs to check 1,100 schools, resulting in the removal of 1.4 tonnes of mercury.

“When managed correctly, mercury is not considered to be a general health threat to children in schools,” said Chris Butler, Mercury-Free Zone programme coordinator. “However, it’s not unusual for children who find mercury in a school to spill or dump it in the school, on buses or at home. Under some circumstances, such a spill can lead to toxic exposure levels.”

“It’s cheap insurance for schools to become mercury free because cleaning up mercury spills is extremely expensive,” said Butler. “And by implementing our soon-to-be-completed curriculum on mercury, we hope that students, school staff and their families will become very aware of the mercury problem and what they can do in their everyday lives to alleviate it. This includes not buying mercury-containing products, using less electricity to reduce the amount of coal that’s burned at power plants, and minimizing petroleum consumption by carpooling, using mass-transit and driving fuel-efficient vehicles.”

Clancy will also be working at schools in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, and those wishing to arrange for an inspection should contact the programme co-ordinator at [email protected].

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