Mercury Spill Forces Puerto Rico Flight Delays

A small amount of mercury spilled inside Puerto Rico's main airport Tuesday and authorities closed three terminals as a precaution, delaying about a dozen flights.

The terminals were closed and the air conditioning system was shut off out of concern for dangerous fumes, said Alvaro Pilar, director of the U.S. Caribbean territory's port authority.

The passenger who packed the mercury in his suitcase said it was
for his brother, a dentist in the Dominican Republic, regional police chief Jose Caldero said. The 52-year-old Dominican man, identified by police as Pedro Rafael de Pena de La Cruz, was being held for questioning but had not been charged.

Mercury is a toxic metal that is widely used as an ingredient in dental fillings. While mercury can damage the brain and nervous system, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says silver fillings contain too little of the substance to harm people.

The suitcase had been checked and was going through a security inspection when an explosive detection machine sounded an alarm, said Greg Soule, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration. He said a TSA employee opened the bag, noticed a
suspicious liquid and alerted fire and rescue authorities who evacuated the terminal.

The passenger was carrying about 20 pounds (nine kilograms) of mercury and only a small amount spilled inside the suitcase, Caldero said.

At least four people received medical attention at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan for symptoms of allergic reactions, airport spokesman Juan Rivera told the newspaper El Nuevo Dia.

The airport was operating through one terminal that remained open, according to Pilar. He said about a dozen flights would be affected.

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