Detroit-Area Schools Respond To Mercury Incidents

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Mercury is on the minds of Michigan educators, following a spate of incidents in which Detroit-area schools were forced to close or seal off parts of their buildings after students were exposed to the dangerous metallic element.

The most serious incident was at Miller Middle School in Detroit, which closed for a week after a 1-ounce spill of mercury was discovered in a science classroom May 8. Students were believed to have stepped in the spill and then tracked it throughout the hallways.

For More Information

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality provides information about mercury and its dangers. Many other state and local environmental agencies or health departments also can provide information on safe handling of mercury in schools.

Franklin High School in the suburb of Livonia was shut for two days after a student lab assistant was discovered playing with small amounts of mercury in science and art classrooms.

And a portion of John Glenn High School in Westland was sealed after students handled mercury in a restroom. They had discovered the mercury in a park-like area near the school where students play and ride bikes, a local health official said.

Mercury exposure can pose a serious health risk, and many districts long ago took steps to rid their schools of the element or carefully monitor its use in science classes. In Michigan, the recent incidents have reminded educators and the public about the potential problems for schools where quantities of the liquid metal may sit unnoticed in classrooms, or even outside the schools in places where students might find it.

The discovery of mercury in a school can be an expensive headache. Fire and police are called. Health workers interview students. Firms are hired to test the air. Schools or parts of them are closed.

David L. Watson, the director of operations for the 18,000-student Livonia district—where the student lab assistant took mercury from a chemical storage area and played with several nickel-size blobs of it while in classes—said the incident made headlines but concerned few parents.

"The public perception is that the place is now contaminated," Mr. Watson said. But, he said last week, the district had spent about $15,000 on the cleanup, and the school building had been made safe. Insurance may help cover the costs.

Since mercury was once such a common plaything, Mr. Watson said, many families don't seem worried about exposure. "Nineteen out of 20 parents I've talked to say, 'I used to play with that as a kid.'"

The lab assistant, an 11th grader, was suspended from school, and police were considering charges, Mr. Watson said.

Avoiding Trouble

Schools should take the trouble to ward off potential problems, said Steve Tackitt, the director of environmental health in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. His division of the county health department assisted the Livonia schools and two other districts where mercury incidents were reported.

"In absence of good, solid information, you obviously err on the side of safety," Mr. Tackitt said. "If you don't and something happens, then it all breaks loose. You always assume the worst and work backwards."

Mr. Watson, who said it was happenstance that several incidents had happened within weeks of each other around Detroit, advised principals to call fire and police departments if they discover mercury exposure.

The element is most dangerous when breathed, he said, since it can easily enter the lungs and bloodstream.

In liquid form, mercury releases tiny amounts of vapors that can be harmful if exposure is sustained. Skin absorption and ingestion by mouth are less serious ways of exposure, Mr. Watson said.

Mercury is difficult to remove when it enters carpeting or clothing, he said.

Most instances, Mr. Watson added, do not directly harm anyone. But he warned that school leaders can't always know who was exposed, for how long, or whether students might have access to mercury outside school.

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Page 5

Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Detroit-Area Schools Respond To Mercury Incidents
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