Re: The Dangers Of Mercury

Discussion in 'Health and medical' started by Jan, Oct 8, 2003.

  1. Jan

    Jan Guest

    Student's Home Has Excessive Mercury Levels
    By Justin Blum and Manny Fernandez
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, October 8, 2003; Page B02

    The house of a student from the District's Ballou Senior High School was found
    to have an excessive level of mercury yesterday, and officials said they would
    test dozens of other homes.

    Last night, a contractor was to begin testing the houses of Ballou students or
    staff members whose clothes or shoes were found to contain an excessive level
    of mercury, said Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).

    "We want to make sure that there is no risk to the people who live there,"
    Bullock said. "It's what we feel is the responsible thing to do."

    Students and employees were screened Monday, and the clothing that they wore to
    school the day of the spill was collected. The clothing of 80 people was
    determined to contain mercury, Bullock said. More clothing was tested
    yesterday, and officials said they could not immediately say how much was
    contaminated. Health officials have not reported finding any individuals with
    mercury poisoning.

    Houses found to have excessive levels of the vapor will be cleaned at
    government expense and families will be relocated temporarily, Bullock said.

    Michael S.A. Richardson, the District's chief medical officer, said that the
    expansion of the investigation was a precaution.

    "The exposure to mercury . . . is so far not an exposure that many people
    should be worried about," he said after at a meeting last night for some Ballou
    students and parents.

    The house already determined to have excessive levels of mercury -- in its
    vapor form -- is in Southeast Washington and is the residence of a Ballou
    student who is believed to have taken the mercury from a chemistry lab Thursday
    and helped to spread it through the school, officials said. The school was
    evacuated and has been closed while cleanup takes place.

    Officials would not release the student's name or the specific location of his
    house, citing privacy concerns. School officials said they did not think the
    student realized the seriousness of his actions. He has not been disciplined,
    and school officials said they are waiting for results of an investigation.

    As the investigation continued into how the mercury was taken and spread,
    school officials placed on leave with pay a Ballou science teacher who
    apparently left the mercury in a vial on a counter in an unlocked chemistry
    lab, a violation of procedures, said William Wilhoyte, the school system's
    assistant superintendent for high schools.

    The teacher was moving the mercury, along with other substances, to a new lab
    to prepare for renovation of the old lab, officials said. They would not
    identify the teacher, citing an ongoing investigation and privacy concerns. In
    other cases, school officials have released names of employees placed on leave
    before an investigation is complete.

    Officials estimated yesterday that several hundred of Ballou's roughly 1,300
    students still need to be tested. Those students were asked to report to Ballou
    today with the clothes they wore Thursday. Students continued to be bused from
    the school in Southeast to alternate locations, including the old D.C.
    convention center downtown, for classes.

    According to Wilhoyte, the student who spread the mercury transferred it from
    the vial to some other container before splattering it in the gym, cafeteria
    and elsewhere, with the help of other students. Mercury, commonly found in
    thermometers, is a silver-white liquid that some students reportedly thought
    resembled special effects from the movie, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

    The student who is believed to have removed the liquid from the lab was
    identified when he brought a bag of clothes and shoes he had worn Thursday to
    school Monday for screening, as students were instructed to do. The items had
    the highest reading of mercury vapors among the staff and student bags that had
    been checked, officials said.

    The student's home was screened for mercury vapor early yesterday morning, and
    the highest concentrations of mercury vapor were found in the youth's room,
    according to officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, which is
    assisting the city. The family was taken to a hospital to be tested for mercury
    exposure, and crews began ventilating the home by opening doors and windows and
    blowing air from at least one industrial-size fan, EPA officials said.

    If inhaled, mercury vapors can be highly toxic and can cause fever, shortness
    of breath or nausea, officials said.

    Officials said one Metro bus was tested for mercury vapors, and it came up
    negative. Four other Metro buses have been quarantined and scheduled for
    testing. Officials said they believe that the student who originally took the
    mercury might have ridden a Metro bus.

    Nationally, school systems have been discontinuing use of mercury in labs
    because of safety concerns, according to an official with the National Science
    Teachers Association, which makes safety recommendations for school science

    "Is it good educational practice to have it in the lab? Absolutely not," said
    Ken Roy, the group's Science Safety Advisory Board chairman. "You don't need to
    use mercury. There are alternatives. It's a dangerous thing."

    Roy said that if the substance is used in labs, it must be stored in locked
    cabinets. He said some teachers use the substance to demonstrate how molecules
    can attract one another and hold their shape.

    Wilhoyte and other D.C. school officials did not know whether the school system
    has a policy dictating the appropriate use of mercury beyond requiring that it
    be stored in locked areas.

    Ballou Principal Art Bridges said he was disappointed by the behavior of
    students who spread the mercury but proud of the way the student body has coped
    with an unusual situation. "We're going to learn from it and go on," Bridges

    © 2003 The Washington Post Company