Mercury in Schoolswww.epa.gov/mercury/schools.htm
What is Mercury?
Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is found in air, water and soil. It exists in three forms: elemental or metallic mercury, inorganic mercury compounds, and organic mercury compounds.
Sometimes referred to as quicksilver, elemental or metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white metal and is liquid at room temperature. When dropped, elemental mercury breaks into smaller droplets, which can go through small cracks or become strongly attached to certain materials.
A True Story
A student brought a vial of liquid elemental mercury to school one morning from his grandfather's garage. The student shared the mercury with children on the bus and in the boys' locker room. Liquid mercury was visible on the gym floor and in several classrooms.
School staff determined that 61 students had come in contact with mercury. School officials implemented emergency procedures, notified the fire department, and began to evacuate the school. The ventilation system was shut down and the 61 students decontaminated. Mercury air concentrations were measured and found to be above EPA levels. Mercury was also found on the bus.
Contaminated areas were cleaned up using a spill control product and by removing contaminated carpet. Remaining localized areas that exhibited mercury concentrations greater than 3,000 parts per trillion were treated overnight with propane heaters. Clothing in lockers in the boys' locker room and the locker room drain were found to exhibit greater mercury vapor concentrations. It was recommended to school officials that the locker room remain closed until additional cleanup efforts could be completed. The school was closed for four days, and cleanup costs exceeded $100,000.
Mercury Sources in Schools
Mercury is used in many items found in schools, such as:
- chemicals in chemistry and science labs
Two major causes of mercury spills at schools are improper storage and handling of these items.
Children might find elemental mercury when they trespass in abandoned warehouses, closed factories, or hazardous waste sites. The heavy, shiny, silver liquid that forms little balls or beads when spilled fascinates children. Children also have taken elemental mercury from school physics and chemistry laboratories. Mercury can also get into schools as the result of folk traditions and spiritual practices.
Disposal of Mercury Containing Devices
Proper disposal of used mercury-containing items is important to protect health and the environment. Improper disposal of containers with mercury in them might allow them to break and release mercury vapors, which are harmful to human health and the environment.
Opportunities for the safe disposal of mercury can vary depending on location. Many states and local agencies have developed collection/exchange programs for mercury-containing devices such as thermometers, manometers, thermostats, and fluorescent light bulbs. Safe disposal of mercury-containing products is discussed on EPA's mercury disposal Web page at: http://www.epa.gov/mercury/index.html
Mercury Exposure is a Health Concern
Elemental mercury causes health effects primarily when it is breathed as a vapor and absorbed through the lungs. This type of exposure can occur when elemental mercury is spilled or products that contain elemental mercury break and expose mercury to the air, particularly in warm or poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Symptoms might include tremors, emotional changes (mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness), insomnia, neuromuscular changes (weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching), headaches, disturbances in sensations, changes in nerve responses, or performance deficits on tests of intellectual function. Kidney effects, respiratory failure and death can occur with increased exposure. People concerned about exposure to elemental mercury should consult their physicians.
If there is a Mercury Spill in School
- Isolate the area.
- Turn down the temperature.
- Open windows.
- Don't let anyone walk through the mercury.
- Don't vacuum.
- Contact the local or state health or state environmental agency.
IOWA: (515) 281-8694
KANSAS: (785) 296-1679
MISSOURI: (573) 634-2436
NEBRASKA: (402) 326-0231
EPA: (913) 281-0991