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New details: PE teacher diagnosed with rare cancer at 36 warns about mercury in gym floors

Melissa McNally told Spotlight on America she loves teaching kids healthy habits (Photo: Melissa McNally)
Melissa McNally told Spotlight on America she loves teaching kids healthy habits (Photo: Melissa McNally)
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WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (TND) — Months after Spotlight on America first revealed a potential hazard lurking in school gyms nationwide, there's a new warning from a physical education (PE) teacher who believes exposure may have caused her cancer. Earlier this year, we discovered that rubberized flooring found in school gyms, day cares and hospitals all across the country, may contain a form of mercury. As the floors age, they can release a toxic vapor known to impact the brain, kidneys, and nervous system.

Now, a gym teacher who was diagnosed with cancer at just 36 is on a mission to raise awareness about the potential hazard hiding in plain sight.

Melissa McNally loves being a gym teacher. She's been teaching physical education to K-5th grade kids at the same New Jersey elementary school for more than two decades.

I love teaching kids how to be healthy," she told us. "I think that when it really comes down to it, there's nothing in life that's more important than your health."

Melissa told us she lives by the healthy standards she preaches. She's never smoked or used illicit drugs, and she's careful about cleaning products and what she puts in her body. That's why a shocking diagnosis in 2013 stopped her in her tracks.

At just 36 years old, Melissa was diagnosed with a rare type of kidney cancer, one that will require her to be medically monitored for the rest of her life.

There's always that looming fear that it will show up in the other kidney," she said. "I always wait for that other shoe to drop, but at the same time, I don't think I can live with the mindset that it will. I just have to keep enduring the treatments that I have."

Melissa has no history of cancer in her family, so she and her doctors were puzzled about what could have caused it. In fact, she told us her cancer is typically found in men in their 70s who have long been exposed to industrial toxins.

"I did look into other exposures when I first found out I had cancer," she said. "I looked into what my drinking water was like as a child. We did a lot of research and we found nothing. So I moved on with life, and just figured this is something I'm never going to know what the cause was."

Six years later, she heard about something called phenylmercuric acetate. It's a form of mercury used to help harden inexpensive rubberized floors, like the one in her school gymnasium.

As the floors wear down, we've learned they can release neurotoxic mercury vapor, a possible carcinogen that can impact the lungs, nervous system and kidneys. The amount of mercury vapor released can depend on a number of factors, including temperature, ventilation, and the age of the floors.

I had a conversation about it with my doctor that we had found that this was present in our gymnasium and before I could even finish my statement, my doctor's jaw kind of hit the floor," Melissa said. "He was just kind of like, 'wow, really?'"

As she connected the dots, Melissa started speaking out, asking questions about the potential exposure, which was still happening at her school.

"We're still tolerating this exposure, even though we know about it and no one was really saying, 'stop,'" she recalled. "In my mind, I was thinking, 'no, let's get it out of here, let's get rid of this.'"

Health officials in her home state of New Jersey were thinking the same thing. Among them, Allen Barkkume is an environmental hygienist and part of a unique team of experts in the Garden State that is taking aggressive steps to identify and remove the floors. He says this can be compared to one of the biggest environmental crises in American history.

"This should remind us of the lead-in-water crisis in the country," Barkkume told Spotlight on America. "Did we know that lead was causing that much problems when we installed lead pipes in everybody’s house? If we did, would we have done it? Now that we know that there’s mercury in these floors, can we stop installing them immediately?"

Barkkume told us when schools have a rubberized floor, it needs to be tested. Samples of the floor and air should be taken. But the next step is where it gets complicated.

Once you discover you've got that much mercury in your floor, you're now standing on a toxic waste site," Allen Barkkume told us. "It's a very jarring juxtaposition to consider that yesterday, my kids were playing tag in this gym, and today it's completely sealed off, only inhabited by folks in hazmat suits and considered a toxic waste site."

The extensive and expensive remediation process has only been done at a handful of schools nationwide. Barkkume told us that's because many schools are unaware of the potential hazard, or reluctant to launch the process to eliminate it. Replacing the floors can cost millions of dollars, and, he told us, schools don't want the added public panic over potential toxic exposure.

Melissa McNally understands what's at stake and knows it's a hard pill to swallow for parents.

"I don't think people want to hear that their kids are being exposed to something unsafe. I don't think people want to believe it," she told us, but said she believes the cost of inaction is much greater.

Ultimately, her elementary school chose to remove and replace the flooring.

But that's just one gym in one school system. At a school not far away, Melissa pulled her own son out of gym class, because she told us the floor still contained phenylmercuric acetate.

A Spotlight on America investigation found only a few states are actively addressing the issue.

  • New York passed a law that sets a limit for mercury vapor exposure and bans all new mercury flooring in schools
  • The Ohio Department of Health issued recommendations for schools to test their floors
  • In New Jersey, the Health Department provided a roadmap for assessing the risk

Beyond that, many schools may be unaware of the potential problem. One federal lawmaker is trying to change that. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has brought the issue to the national stage several times.

In 2020, Booker introduced legislation called the Mercury Vapor Study Act of 2020, which would:

  • Require federal agencies to study the impact of mercury vapor
  • Require federal agencies to create a registry of schools with PMA floorings
  • Establish best practices to mitigate the risk of mercury vapor exposure

The bill never made it out of committee.

Back in New Jersey, Melissa is calling for more research into the long-term effects of the exposure, so there can be a fuller picture of what the future may hold.

"We've not lived long enough yet to know what this is really going to do. Although I think I'm probably some walking proof of that," she said, "There's not enough data out there yet to really show what this can cause long term in the broad scope of students and teachers and people who've been exposed."

For now, as she battles her own cancer, she's continuing to speak out to prevent others from being exposed.

I don't get to just put this behind me and walk away. It's always there. It's going to affect me for the rest of my life," said Melissa McNally. "I don't want it to affect anyone else for the rest of theirs and especially not kids who have no tools to prevent their exposure from this. So I'm the one with the tools and I just have to use them."


If you want to find out more about whether your child's school may have mercury in the floors, visit the following resources:

New Jersey Department of Health Guidance for Schools

New Jersey School Boards Association Health and Safety Guide


To see how the EPA and manufacturers responded to our inquiries, read our extended online investigation here.

You can watch our first story about mercury in school floors below:

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