Christopher Lee Melder has been charged with burglary, unlawful disposal of hazardous material and an outstanding felony drug possession warrant.
Authorities said the burglary charge stemmed from Melder breaking into a lab to steal the toxic metal.
Thank you to all of our FBI personnel, @houstonpolice, @HoustonOEM, [email protected] who has been working nonstop since Sunday morning to make sure the public is safe and to identify the individual responsible for the mercury spill. Thank you!
— FBI Houston (@FBIHouston) December 16, 2019
The FBI first tweeted Monday around 3:30 a.m. that they had taken someone into custody for questioning.
Around 60 people were decontaminated as a precaution following the discovery of the heavy metal mercury at a west Houston shopping center located in the area of Westview Drive and West Sam Houston Parkway.
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said a pregnant woman was transported to the hospital, but it was also precautionary.
Less than a pint of the element was found around 1 p.m. in three areas in and around a Walmart, Sonic restaurant, and Shell gas station, Peña said. First responders were able to set up a hazardous material decontamination area and wash people who may have come into contact with the substance. No one presented any symptoms of exposure, authorities said.
Those who had to be decontaminated had trace amounts of the element near their feet and shoes, according to a statement released Sunday night.
A pair of other incidents may point investigators in the direction of what led to the spill, Houston police said.
Authorities are looking into a possible burglary at a nearby property. They’re also looking into a report of a man who went to a hospital claiming he had been exposed to mercury.
Mercury is a shiny silver chemical element that can cause health issues when there’s prolonged exposure, according to David Persse with the Houston Department of Health and Human Services.
“Mercury has a bad reputation for causing neurological problems,” Persse said. “That’s only because of prolonged exposure. Today’s situation, the risk to the public is extremely low.”
Mercury is found in air, water, and soil and exists in three different forms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Elemental mercury is liquid at room temperature and is used in some thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs, and some electrical switches.
Mercury dangers: Tips to protect yourself during a mercury spill
High vapor concentrations of elemental mercury can quickly cause severe lung damage and neurological disturbances, the CDC said. Sunday’s spill involved only small amounts, authorities said.
ABC13 Archives: Hazmat to clean up mercury spill at Midtown Houston building complex
🚨Asking the public to avoid the area near Sam Houston Pkwy and Westview @HoustonFire & @houstonpolice on scene for possible Mercury Spill.
More information as it becomes available.
— Chief Samuel Peña (@FireChiefofHFD) December 15, 2019
The scene is still in the process of being cleaned up, and the shopping center is blocked off. However, no roads are closed.
Authorities aren’t yet sure about a motive or when the substance was spilled at the shopping center.
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