updated 8/26/2009 1:58:03 PM ET 2009-08-26T17:58:03

An airline passenger faces U.S. federal charges after illegally carrying mercury that leaked inside his suitcase, forcing Puerto Rico's main international airport to shut down several terminals and delay numerous flights, an FBI spokesman said Wednesday.

Pedro Rafael de Pena de La Cruz, 52, of the Dominican Republic, was held overnight in a federal detention center and was to appear in court on the charge of transportation of hazardous materials, FBI spokesman Harry Rodriguez said. If convicted, he faces fines and a possible prison sentence of up to five years.

The spill Tuesday morning delayed more than a dozen flights as the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport closed three terminals out of concern for dangerous vapors.

De La Cruz told Puerto Rican authorities he was bringing the mercury to a dentist in the Dominican Republic. He was carrying about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of the toxic metal and only a small amount spilled inside the suitcase, police said.

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

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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