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Mercury closes schoolPhoto:436336,left;

by Maggie O'Neill

GARDNERVILLE – The last time 14-year-old Pau-Wa-Lu student Kelly McNeil saw her Christmas clothes was when she put them into a decontamination bag Tuesday.

Kelly traded her clothes, jewelry and shoes for a paper suit as hazardous materials teams from Douglas County and Carson City converged on the Gardnerville Ranchos school after one of Kelly’s classmates brought a quarter cup of mercury to school.

The school was evacuated and will remain closed today for clean-up.

Kelly and 56 other students who came in contact with mercury at the school were held in the library for four to five hours while hazardous materials teams mustered up to clean up the mess.

“It was cold and it really sucked,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in the library for four or five hours with no food. They bagged our clothes, earrings, shoes, everything we were wearing. They said if the clothes didn’t have mercury on them then they would be returned.”

Kelly said anyone who was near the mercury was placed in isolation.

“If anyone brings mercury to school again, I’ll have to hurt them,” she said. “Never mess with mercury.”

Students not exposed were bused to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where they were then placed on their normal bus routes home, according to Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Mezzetta.

Parent Saye Tupas, who lives two blocks from Pau-Wa-Lu, said she is concerned about sending her son back to school.

Her son, Jonathan Blatnik, 13, wore his brand new Nike’s for the second day of school.

Tupas said it was a shock to learn the expensive shoes will have to be thrown away.

“Grandma bought the shoes and they were well beyond our means,” she said.

A note from the school told Tupas a quarter cup of mercury was brought to school and spilled both inside the school and in a bus.

“This is scary,” she said. “I’ve known somebody who had mercury poisoning and got to witness the final months. It was very ugly.

“How did these kids manage to get a quarter cup of mercury?” she wondered. Officials were not sure of the source of the liquid mercury, but there was speculation it may have come from an abandoned mine, where mercury is used in the extraction process.

The evacuation disrupted lunch at the school, but no one was injured, according to Mezzetta.

According to Dr. Zane Horowitz, medical director of Washoe Poisoning Center, liquid mercury is not harmful unless it is heated up.

“It’s completely harmless,” he said. “There is no toxicity whatsoever from touching.”

He said that handwashing was appropriate action for anyone who came in contact with the liquid mercury. He also said that mercury would not vaporize in the air unless it was heated.

Mezzetta said the quarter cup of liquid mercury came to school with a student on a bus Tuesday morning.

“A lot of folks played with it and handled it,” Mezzetta said.

Fire and police personnel arrived at the Gardnerville Ranchos school about 11 a.m. Drops of liquid mercury were found in various locations at the school and on the bus the student arrived on.

Students were kept in classrooms and the library as officials taped off areas of the school. One teacher was kept from returning to his classroom.

A heating and air condition specialist arrived about 11:30 a.m. to shut down the system and prevent movement of liquid mercury vapors through the air.

A cleaning crew specializing in disposal services was on its way to locate the spills and complete the cleanup.

Mark Merchant, a spokesman for the protection agency’s emergency response team in San Francisco said the team would be in Nevada by 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“We are sending a team to help out,” Merchant said. “We’ll be doing some testing to figure out how best to decontaminate the school. The team may be working through the night depending on the weather – some of the equipment is weather sensitive.

“We do this far too often. We just did the same thing in Washington, D.C., where a student brought in about the same amount.”

“I don’t think they’ll arrive and certify the school to be occupied for a couple of days,” Mezzetta said.

He said students will not be returning to school until the protection agency confirms it is clean. In the meantime, he said parents should look for symptoms of liquid mercury poisoning for up to 24 hours after exposure. He said contamination does not show immediately.

Potential signs include muscular tension, nausea and diarrhea. Mezzetta cautioned that poisoning is extremely rare. He said if any signs occur, a physician should be contacted.

So far, he said “everyone is fine. There has been no immediate effect of exposure.”

Contact Maggie O’Neill at mo’neill@recordcourier.com or 782-5121.