Mercury spill causes scare but no danger at Fallon school
February 26, 2008
FALLON, Nev. (AP) – A small mercury spill caused a scare at a northern Nevada high school where more than 600 people temporarily were locked down Tuesday but initial tests showed there was little contamination and no immediate health hazard, state environmental officials said.
An estimated 500 students, 71 teachers and 25 others who had been held for several hours at Churchill County High School in Fallon were released about 7 p.m., said Dante Pistone, a spokesman for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.
“There is no danger at this point,” he told The Associated Press. “The initial sweep indicated that the air in the building is fine. … Everybody has been released and should be fine.”
The highest level of contamination detected was in a men’s bathroom in the math building where a spill occurred when a thermometer was broken but that reading was less than half the safe level established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Pistone said.
Crews detected no contamination readings on the student or belongings of the student who supposedly was involved with the breakage, he said.
“It looks like it is going to be not nearly as serious as initially thought,” Pistone said. “Everything is fine now.”
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The state called off crews the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had dispatched to Fallon, he said. The school district has arranged for a private contractor to clean up the spill on Wednesday.
“That should take care of it, what little bit there is there. It looks like we are out of the woods in terms of a health concern,” Pistone said.
NDEP officials initially planned to screen every one of the nearly 600 people who were who held several hours after school about 50 miles east of Reno. But given the results of the initial tests, they decided instead to screen only a sampling of 10 percent of those present.
“They had only very minor readings,” Pistone said. “If they have symptoms, they can come back and be screened again.”
Crews know of “at least two” thermometers that were broken, one in the school’s math building and one in the main school building, Pistone said. But he said he had no other details on a second thermometer.
School officials said a student apparently brought at least one thermometer to school and inadvertently broke it in a boys bathroom in the math building about 9 a.m. but that no one reported it until about lunchtime.
NDEP crews arrived at the scene at about 5 p.m and were using equipment to detect mercury in the air at building entrances, Pistone said.
The lock down was ordered because of the possible health hazard airborne mercury can pose, he said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
The school was scheduled to reopen for classes as usual on Wednesday, school officials said.