Mercury scare at high school

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Classroom closed for decontamination

By Lisa King

A mercury spill required environmental experts to descend upon Shelby County High School, keeping classroom closed for decontamination on Thursday.

The spill occurred Wednesday, when several students took apart a thermostat to get the mercury out of it, school officials said.

Duanne Puckett, community relations coordinator for Shelby County Public Schools, said the students apparently used some type of tool to force open the thermostat, which was encased with wire for safety measures. She said the incident was discovered about 2 p.m. Wednesday, and school officials responded immediately.

The Environmental Protection Agency was notified and sent representatives to the site to test for high levels of mercury contamination on those who may have been exposed. No one was injured or claimed to be ill.

Puckett said the decontamination crew worked Wednesday night to clean one classroom of questionable levels of mercury. Local Emergency medical management officials were also at SCHS in accordance with the school district's crisis-plan protocol.

"We have a detailed plan for just about any emergency situation, so I was confident all bases were being covered to ensure the safety and well-being of students and staff," Superintendent James Neihof said in a prepared statement.

Charlie Frazee, director of Shelby County Emergency Management, who headed up the team that responded to the school, said that although some details of how the spill occurred are still vague, his understanding is that three or four boys s removed the thermostat in a locker room. He said he thinks those students then took the mercury to a chemistry lab and put it in a vial.

That mercury was retrieved by emergency workers, who sent it off for proper disposal. But Frazee said in the process they accidentally dropped some of it in various places, such as near the school's track.

"Our mercury vapor meter picked up traces of it near the track, and we detected traces of it on some people's shoes," he said.

The air in the building was tested, and at the advice of the EPA, the decontamination specialists were contracted to secure the classroom as an extra precaution.

The classroom was closed to students and staff Thursday, when school maintenance employees completed follow-up cleaning and replaced furniture, tiles and other items to ensure decontamination.

"Environmental checks were made of hallways, lockers, classrooms, outdoor areas and even the running track since those areas were determined to be sites the students had traveled. No questionable level of mercury was found except in that one classroom," Neihof said in the statement.

The students are facing appropriate disciplinary action, according to school board policy.

The OneCall telephone messaging system was enacted Wednesday night between 7:30 to 10 p.m. to notify parents. A follow-up letter was sent home with students Thursday by Interim Principal Michael Rowe.

Neihof assured parents that all measures were taken to protect students so that instruction could continue in an orderly fashion Thursday.

Frazee said that the thought the amount of mercury was small, but it could still have made someone very ill if they ingested any of it.

"I don't think it would have killed anyone, but still, I don't want to downplay the seriousness of it," he said.

The most common source of human exposure to mercury comes from eating seafood. The toxin is also used in making thermometers and thermostats, and minute amounts are used in dental restorations.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methylmercury can be hazardous if ingested. Primary dangers are to children, infants and fetuses, whose neurological development can be stunted.

Recent human biological monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that most people have blood mercury levels below a level associated with possible health effects.


Symptoms of mercury poisoning


Impairment of the peripheral vision

Disturbances in sensations ("pins and needles" feelings, numbness) usually in the hands feet and sometimes around the mouth

Lack of coordination of movements, such as writing

Impairment of speech, hearing, walking;

Muscle weakness

Skin rashes

Mood swing

Memory loss

Mental disturbance