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Decisive action in school mercury threat

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

By Nevada Appeal editorial board

Douglas County school officials should get credit for taking decisive, thorough action when they learned almost 60 students at a middle school had been exposed to mercury last week.

Many adults have hazy memories of pushing little silver globs of mercury across their laboratory-classroom desktops when they were in school – before the hazards of mercury vapors became well known.

So some wondered what all the fuss was about on Tuesday that caused the school to be evacuated and some 57 students to turn over their clothes in favor of paper suits and blankets. Hazardous-materials teams scoured the school, and an Environmental Protection Agency crew spent days removing any mercury vapor from the air.

It’s because pushing mercury around with your finger isn’t dangerous, but the temperature in a room doesn’t have to rise much (77 degrees) to begin to vaporize the elemental metal. And that’s the point at which mercury does become dangerous.

So every effort taken at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School to protect children and calm parents was more than justified.

We can only hope there will be no lasting illnesses from the contamination. If that’s the case – and officials believe it will be – then all the thanks are due school administrators.

The mercury was brought to the school by a student who apparently found it on a Douglas County ranch. Mercury has a variety of uses, usually associated with mining in this area when it was used to separate gold and silver from sand and gravel.

Most people should know that stretches of the Carson River were contaminated with tons of mercury left behind from the Comstock mining era.

If there was any good to come from the incident, it’s that a whole lot of middle-school students got a firsthand education on the hazards of mercury. And that apparently at least some adults – the ones who might leave a quarter-cup worth lying around where a youngster could get his hands on it – should learn the same lesson.