Mercury in Schools
On October 2, 2003, the Washington, D.C.'s Fire Department Hazmat Unit responded to an emergency call unlike any call Ballou High School had ever had to make. What the D.C.'s Hazmat unit found that afternoon proved to be the beginning of a long, exhausting search for and clean up of an elemental mercury spill. By the time the DC Hazmat Team and the DC public health officials arrived, it was too late to contain all the spills; varying amounts of mercury were found in the classrooms, gymnasium, and cafeteria. Contamination did not stop there. Students unknowingly carried mercury through the streets, onto city and school busses, and into their homes. As a result of the spill, Ballou High School was closed for 35 days and over 200 homes were tested for mercury contamination.
An increasing number of elemental mercury spills have been reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in recent years. In 2004, six regions of the EPA responded to mercury spills, including twelve emergency removals from schools. These spills create public health issues and generally necessitate costly cleanups. EPA cleanup costs for elemental mercury in 2004 ranged from $1,000 to $200,000 per site. That year, EPA also funded local government efforts to cleanup mercury spills at several schools. State and local governments and local school districts also contributed funds to the cleanups.
Two major causes of mercury spills at schools are improper storage and mishandling. Elemental (metallic) mercury primarily causes health effects when it is breathed as a vapor where it can be absorbed through the lungs. These exposures 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 include: tremors; emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness); insomnia; neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching); headaches; disturbances in sensations; changes in nerve responses, and performance deficits on tests of cognitive function. Higher exposure can lead to kidney effects, respiratory failure and death. People concerned about their exposure should consult their physician. Even a small spill of elemental mercury should be addressed quickly.
The key to preventing spills in schools is to remove all mercury compounds and mercury-containing equipment, and to discontinue its use. Some states have programs to facilitate the removal of mercury-containing materials in schools. For more information about these programs, please visit EPA's Safe Mercury Management Web site.
EPA's Schools Chemical Cleanout Campaign (SC3) addresses mercury and other unnecessarily hazardous chemicals in schools by proactively cleaning these chemicals out of schools, and going a step further to implement mechanisms to prevent their reappearance in schools. In the summer of 2004, EPA provided initial funding to its ten regions to support Schools Chemical Cleanout Campaign (SC3) programs. Each region is using this money to fund former, current or newly developed school cleanout and prevention programs in schools.