March 24, 2006 in Idaho

Cleanup closes school 2nd day

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

An EPA contractor uses a sensor device Thursday to detect vapors produced by mercury at Lake City High School. Several plastic capsules containing a dental mercury compound were brought to the school by a student on Monday, prompting a shutdown of the campus Thursday and today for cleanup.
(Full-size photo)

Not to worry

» When word spread of potential mercury exposure at Lake City High School this week, many parents of the nearly 1,400 students asked one reasonable question: “How worried should I be?”

Medical experts from across the Inland Northwest provided a reasonable answer Thursday: “Not at all.”

Pediatricians and toxicologists agreed that while mercury is a potentially dangerous substance, the amount and scope of the material at the Coeur d’Alene school posed almost no risk to students, faculty and staff.

“It takes recurrent exposures to high levels of mercury to cause any issue,” said Dr. Terence Neff of Coeur d’Alene Pediatrics.

Mercury is a shiny, silver-gray metal that becomes liquid at room temperature. When it is spilled or exposed to air, it evaporates, creating mercury vapor. Inhaling that vapor can be harmful, but only through prolonged contact with significant amounts, said Elliott Briggs, a toxicologist with Pathology Associates Medical Laboratory in Spokane.

Symptoms of mercury vapor exposure develop slowly and might include nausea, irritability, cough and nervous tremors, Briggs said. – JoNel Aleccia

Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene is closed for the second day today as federal and local officials clean up traces of mercury a sophomore brought to school Monday.

The student told Coeur d’Alene police he stole vials of Dispersalloy, a material used for fillings, from a storage closet at Dr. John Ukich’s Coeur d’Alene dental office where he and his mother work as janitors. Ukich told police he didn’t want to press theft charges.

Traces of the toxic substance were found in nine classrooms and four to six janitor’s closets at the school. Though as many as 50 vials were stolen, it is estimated up to 15 vials – containing a total of one-half ounce of mercury at most – were brought to school, said Earl Liverman, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Liverman said the decision to close the school was based on a “very small risk, but nevertheless a risk.” He said no one has shown symptoms of exposure.

Liverman said cleanup crews began work after school ended Wednesday and continued until Thursday morning. Workers identified areas where the liquid mercury had spilled and remained on classroom floors.

“We found some amounts smaller than a pinhead,” he said. A special vacuum was used to clean up those areas, and ventilation system filers were replaced. Some tiles were removed from classrooms that had higher levels of mercury vapor.

Over the next couple of days, officials plan to crank up the school’s heating system to about 85 degrees to “burn off” any mercury vapors in the building, then pump it to the outdoors where it will disperse.

Lake City Principal John Brumley said the student has been suspended for five days.

An EPA team flew in from Seattle on Wednesday to check for mercury contamination. School officials say they first learned the mercury was on school grounds Monday afternoon.

The school resource officer spent Tuesday interviewing students, and school officials say they contacted authorities by Tuesday evening.

Coeur d’Alene Fire Chief Jim Washko and EPA officials responded to the school Wednesday morning, and all after-school activities were canceled that afternoon.

The time lag between when the incident was reported and when students were evacuated concerned some parents, including Linda Miller, whose daughter is a sophomore.

“Why the heck was it 3 o’clock Wednesday when they threw them out?” Miller said. “At the very least I think there should have been some communication with the parents. I’m frustrated they didn’t handle this more conscientiously.”

Miller said she woke up anxious on Thursday because she didn’t have more information about the incident, and spent two hours trying to get in touch with someone at the school.

She wondered whether the student brought in the mercury “maliciously” or “stupidly.” She wondered why experts weren’t called in sooner. She wondered whether to take her daughter to a doctor. “We need to be informed,” she said.

Experts and school officials maintain that they took the right steps in emptying the school when they did.

“It posed no immediate risk so we did not evacuate,” said Brumley, the principal. Parents weren’t notified, he added, because “to communicate in any way would cause a substantial stir.”

Washko, the deputy fire chief, said that because of the level of exposure, the team decided it was appropriate to allow school to finish, “instead of causing a panic, which was unnecessary.”

Washko said the substance was passed around and played with by as many as 11 students.

Because students probably didn’t handle the material for more than a couple of hours, “In all likelihood, as a consequence, no one will exhibit signs of exposure,” Liverman said. Those signs would include irritation of skin and mucous membranes, as well as headache and nausea.

The janitor rooms had the highest concentration of mercury, because janitorial staff had vacuumed and mopped floors throughout the week. Any reading above 1 microgram of mercury per cubic meter of air warrants cleanup. The janitor rooms registered levels up to 30 micrograms.

“They did a great job of mitigating the exposure,” Washko said. None of the janitors sought medical attention.

Among classrooms, the highest concentration was in Pam Gomes’ room, at 15 micrograms. The rooms belonging to teachers Scott Jacobson and Gary Haller also had more than 3 micrograms.

The rooms of six other teachers had between 1 and 3 micrograms of mercury: Mike Clabby, Kelly Reed, Jennifer Owen, Bill Keylon, Tacey Keylon and Patrick Behm.

Cleanup crews wore protective gear while in the classrooms because constant exposure to substances like mercury can be damaging over years, Washko said. But he and other officials emphasized that students were not in danger.

Air samples will be taken throughout the weekend and results are expected on Monday. Crews are prepared to do more cleanup if necessary.

They also will clean up at the residence of the student who brought the mercury to school. The home registered concentration levels similar to those found at the school, Liverman said. The student and his family evacuated the house Wednesday night and have sought medical assistance, he added.

Of the students who admitted to handling the mercury, two took up the EPA’s offer to screen their families’ houses and cars. Negative levels of mercury were found, Washko said.

Washko and Liverman said they had not looked into the costs associated with the incident, but that agencies such as the EPA would be funded at the state level.

Brumley said the district has not determined whether the missed school days will have to be made up. Schools can take up to two emergency days per year. The district board and superintendent will decide what action to take.

Although the district called TV and radio stations to get the word out about the closure, some students came to school and were surprised to learn they got an early start on spring break, which begins Monday.

Lake City senior Hope Carpenter said she awoke late and didn’t see the news. When she got to school at 9:30 a.m., she was greeted by a mostly empty parking lot.

A large red truck marked Hazardous Materials was parked not far from the front entrance. Yellow and orange signs posted on the school’s doors read “No Admittance” and “Do Not Enter.”

“I thought they’d contained it and taken care of it,” she said.

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