Toxins in former N.J. child day care center are a reminder for parents to be vigilant

It’s a nightmare for any parent, but sadly it is all too real – a Gloucester County, N.J., children’s day care center was closed in January 2006 after it was found to contain levels of potentially toxic mercury vapors that were 27 times acceptable levels inside the building.

Somehow the building that housed the former Kiddie Kollege day care center was located on a site formerly used by a thermometer factory where there had been “a history of spills,” according to a story this week in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Now the families of almost 100 children who attended the Franklinville facility from 2004 to 2006 are suing for damages, blaming officials at “all levels of government for failing to prevent the day-care center from opening in the building, which had not been properly decontaminated,” the story said.  The building had been listed in a contaminated-sites database, but was apparently approved for the day care center by accident.

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Now the case is in the courts and the building’s mercury contamination is still causing a stir.  Boxes of documents and evidence collected by authorities from the day care center building before it was razed last month are still so contaminated by mercury levels that state officials suggested that the records be photographed for use in the legal case, then properly disposed of in a hazardous substances landfill.  The lawyers handling the original documents for legal research weren’t allowed to physically touch the papers and were instead given CDs that contained images of the paper documents.  Four years after the facility was closed, those papers still contained high levels of mercury fumes, the Inquirer reported.

Shortly after the day care center was closed, N.J. state health officials tested the children for mercury levels and allegedly determined that no further evaluation was needed.  “Health officials said they didn’t believe the children would suffer long-term effects,” the story said.

Parents are now wondering what effects this may have all had on their precious children in light of how the mercury fumes were still contained in something as simple as the paper records of the facility for so long.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of the children and their parents seeks to “have the state, the building owners, and others pay for medical monitoring to make sure the children are promptly treated for any ailments that could arise from their exposure to the toxin. Mercury vapors can cause neurological and kidney problems,” according to the Inquirer.

It will take a while for the courts to figure out how all of this could have happened.

In the meantime, this case highlights several legal issues that all parents should remember when placing their children in day care, after-school programs, athletic programs or any other recreational, educational or social programs:

*Know who is providing the care, including their credentials, their insurance availability, regulatory approvals and their reputations.  Know that you are leaving your children in the hands of capable and smart people and that proper reviews, approvals and procedures have been followed.

*Check with local governments to ensure that the facilities where you leave your children are properly licensed and accredited and are operating within the guidelines that were set through zoning and building occupancy permits.

*Know your rights and ask lots of questions.   Are emergency procedures in the event of fire or natural disasters clear and practiced?  Are employees who provide child care or supervision of the children trained in emergency procedures?  Are they trained in emergency medical care?  Are adequate supplies and communications equipment in the facility in the event they are needed?

*Remain vigilant always.  If you see, hear or smell something unusual in the facility, whether it be a possible natural gas leak or some other concern, be sure to report it and follow up to find out about how it was handled.  Find out who is in charge and remind them that they are ultimately responsible for all that goes on there.

And no matter what, if you believe that something isn’t right and your concerns aren’t adequately handled by personnel at the facility, talk to local police or local officials about the issues.

Ultimately, if someone isn’t taking good care of your children, you may have to eventually discuss it with an attorney who can help you determine the next steps to take.

The Kiddie Kollege case is a good reminder for us all that we always need to watch out carefully for our children.  We hope that the children and the families involved in this case find quick resolution and closure through the legal system.