Mercury spill doesn’t linger

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Clean-up completed after SCHS lockdown

By Todd Martin

Shelby County High School reopened Thursday morning without delay after an incident had the school on lockdown Wednesday afternoon.

Assistant Superintendent Kerry Whitehouse commended the school and all those involved through a release issued by Shelby County Public Schools Thursday morning.

""It is gratifying to know so many community and school individuals come in a second's notice to work together when an incident such as this occurs," he said.

Just before 3 p.m. the school started issuing one-call messages to parents, alerting them the school had been placed on lockdown because of a spill of less than 3 grams of mercury.

The spill occurred after students broke a thermostat located in a storage room that contained students' projects.

According to the statement, those responsible for the vandalism were turned over to the Shelby County Sheriff's Office and will face disciplinary actions.

The Environmental Protection Agency was alerted and brought in to handle the clean-up. The school was allowed to release students and staff at about 4:15 p.m., and buses finished routes by 5:50 p.m.

The school followed the procedures from the district crisis plan set in place for a chemical spill, which included the lockdown of students and staff for about an hour.

Mercury is specifically outlined in the plan, and those students and staff who were in the area where the spill occurred were isolated and screened by the EPA. No residue was found.

The lockdown included no entry to the building, and signs were posted on the doors. The sheriff's office also assisted by monitoring the scene.

In the release, Whitehouse said one reason for the positive response by parents was "teachers allowed students to use their phones to communicate with their parents by text or voice messages. That really helped calm concerns."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the exposure to elemental mercury, like that found in thermostats, primarily causes health effects when it is breathed in as a vapor, where it can be absorbed into the lungs. Symptoms can include headaches, disturbances in sensations and changes in nerve response, and in higher exposure there could be kidney effects, respiratory failure or even death.

At SCHS, however, the EPA cleared the vicinity of the spill, and the cleaning crews had departed the building by around 8 p.m. Wednesday.