Officials investigate mercury spill

The health effects of a puddle of mercury found in a Douglas High School storage room have not been determined.

Bob Murphey, of Douglas County School District transportation, takes care of hazardous materials on school grounds. He said maintenance personnel found about six ounces of mercury when they unbolted a cabinet from the wall in a storage room Monday, Feb. 21. Renovations were being done while students were out of school for ski week.

The storage room is adjacent to a science classroom, Room 216, in the old section of the school, Murphey said.

"We are making sure no residual mercury is left in that room. Thankfully, each room is individually ducted. If vapors before were released, it was only in that room," Murphey said.

The room has been closed and the teacher is being tested for any health effects.

"It doesn't seem the children were exposed to hazardous vapors. The main concern is for the teacher who is in that room all day long. She will be tested to make sure there have been no health effects," Murphey said.

The district called the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which suggested DCSD hire a private contractor, Greg Clark, of Converse Consultants in Reno, to clean up the mercury and dispose of it properly.

Rich Meiers, industrial hygienic supervisor with OSHA, took preliminary air samples and advised the school district it had a problem and would need to call in a private consultant. Meiers said he found higher-than-acceptable levels of toxic mercury vapors in the storage room and classroom.

More air tests are being done, and tests are also being done to determine if there are traces of mercury on the walls and furniture, Murphey said.

Murphey said because the mercury was contained under the cabinet, everyone involved believes the vapors were not released until the cabinet was moved and people began walking in and out of the room. However, the area under the cabinet was not airtight, Meiers said.

"It is a liquid at room temperature and has a vapor pressure. Some small amounts become vapor and go into the air, and that is temperature-driven. Indoors, there is a much greater concern that it will become a human health hazard. Inside, part of it will evaporate into the air," Meiers said.

Murphey said the school is interviewing former science teachers to determine when the mercury was spilled.

Business services director Rick Kester said the school district had searched for hazardous materials and removed any found.

"That room was built in 1976, so it could have been there any period during that time," Kester said. "The district has gotten rid of all hazardous materials like that six or seven years ago."

Murphey said mercury has "critical health affects, but that's usually at far higher levels."

Overexposure to mercury vapors can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including convulsions, chest pains, coughing, a metallic taste, dizziness, pain and numbness in extremities, headache and even death.


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