WENTZVILLE — It started in summer when several children in a neighborhood here got sick.
Jen Niswonger took her four children to the doctor with a “crazy rash” and was told it was likely a viral infection that needed to work itself out.
But her 11-year-old daughter didn’t get better. She was in physical pain, prone to headaches and exhaustion. She missed school and lay in bed all day long.
Niswonger took the girl to primary care doctors and specialists and for tests, X-rays and MRIs. Everything came back normal.
“It was terrifying and very frustrating,” she said.
Then, in early October, Niswonger took the child to a west St. Louis County hospital. They ran further tests, and last Friday, they gave her the real answer: mercury poisoning.
Hers became one of three households in Wentzville to be evacuated after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of mercury on surfaces and in the air.
The initial poisoning happened when neighborhood kids were playing with a vial of liquid elemental mercury, officials said. It spilled — and stuck around.
Such incidents are rare, said David Bryan, an EPA spokesperson. Technological advancements in thermometers and lightbulbs have largely kept mercury out of people’s homes, and information about its toxicity has mostly kept it out of classrooms and away from children.
But that also means doctors don’t usually consider it unless they know somebody has been exposed, said Dr. Melissa Puffenbarger, Mercy’s medical director for pediatric medicine and emergencies.
“I’ve never encountered it in my practice,” she said.
Elemental mercury does its damage by seeping through the fatty cells around the brain and nerves. That can lead to tremors, tingling of the hands or mouth, vision changes and trouble sleeping.
Most of the time, the remedy for mercury poisoning is to allow it to slowly leave the body through feces or urine, Puffenbarger said.
In severe cases, treatments are available to flush out the toxins more quickly.
For Niswonger’s daughter, a weekslong treatment in the hospital will be necessary. The 11-year-old is also being treated for pain and receiving medicine to control high blood pressure.
Niswonger has hardly left her daughter’s side in the past five weeks. She stopped working and goes to the hospital daily. Her three boys, ages 16, 13 and 2, are living with a family member while the EPA cleans their home. One of the boys still gets migraines and experiences small pains in his legs.
Niswonger remains angry at the cause.
“Somebody just had this poison lying around,” she said, “and a child got a hold of it.”
It’s unclear where the mercury in this case originated, the EPA’s Bryan said earlier this week.
Puffenbarger, the Mercy doctor, said the best way to prevent mercury poisoning is to immediately leave areas where it is present, monitor for symptoms and seek treatment if necessary.
The city of St. Louis and St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties all have programs available to help dispose of mercury in household items, such as old thermometers and lightbulbs. Information on programs in the city, St. Louis County and Jefferson County is available at www.hhwstl.com. St. Charles County residents can visit www.sccmo.org/918/Hazardous-Household-Waste-Collection.
“If you have it in your house, you should definitely get rid of it,” Niswonger said. “It’s not a toy.”