- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Two high school students were treated at Civista Medical Center and released Friday after a mercury spill, said a Charles County Public Schools spokeswoman and a volunteer firefighter.
None of the 16 students present when an old thermostat broke during a vocational training class was found to have been exposed to the toxic metal, including the two who were sent to the La Plata hospital after telling their school nurse that they felt ill.
The incident began Friday morning at Robert D. Stethem Educational Center in Pomfret, when a student accidentally broke a thermostat part containing mercury during a class on heating, ventilation and air conditioning, schools spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said. The student, with the help of a friend, cleaned up the spill himself.
When a substitute teacher learned of the spill, he ordered the students out of the room. The students were then bused back to their home high schools, where two students from Maurice J. McDonough High School in Pomfret, including the one who broke the thermostat, went to the nurse’s office before 11 a.m. and reported possible mercury exposure, O’Malley-Simpson said. The nurse called 911.
Members of the La Plata Volunteer Fire Department who happened to be at the school to teach fire prevention recommended that the school be locked down, said Doug Hutchins, a La Plata VFD deputy chief who was incident commander at McDonough during the incident Friday.
Potentially exposed students were isolated and their shoes removed for testing. After no mercury was detected in the building or on the students, the two students in the nurse’s office were taken to Civista by ambulance.
The school was placed on “shelter in place” status, meaning students and staff stayed mainly inside their classrooms, O’Malley-Simpson said.
School was dismissed at about 2:45 p.m., about a half-hour later than normal, she said.
“It was not something we deal with every day,” Hutchins said.
4 other schools affected
Besides seven students from McDonough, the Stethem HVAC class included one from La Plata High School and four from Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head. The group also included three from Thomas Stone High School and one from Westlake High School, both in Waldorf. All of them returned to their home schools after the class, where they also were isolated and checked by hazardous materials hazmat teams from Charles County Emergency Services and Naval Support Facility Indian Head, as were the buildings and school buses, O’Malley-Simpson and Hutchins said.
No mercury was found.
About 2.9 grams of elemental, or pure, mercury was found to have been spilled inside the Stethem classroom, O’Malley-Simpson said, and a contractor, Bishop & Associates of Baltimore, was called to clean up. On Monday morning, a different company, Life Seed Inc. of Baltimore, tested the room and found nothing, she said.
“It was not used today, but it should be fine for use tomorrow,” O’Malley-Simpson said Monday of the room.
Bryans Road Volunteer Fire Department took charge at Stethem, Hutchins said. The department’s chief could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
The Maryland Department of the Environment Emergency Response Division sent a unit to Charles County after county emergency services officials asked for help, said MDE emergency responder Robert Swann. By the time the team arrived from Baltimore the county had “got a real good handle on things,” Swann said, but the team did backup readings outside of McDonough on buses and potentially contaminated personal vehicles, and found nothing, he said.
Elemental mercury is relatively harmless when touched or swallowed, but inhaling the vapor can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, he said. It’s of particular concern for growing children, pregnant women and women of childbearing age.
He urged people not to be complacent about mercury, the vapor of which is invisible and odorless, even if such threats were not taken seriously in the past.
“Us old folks can remember playing with it in school,” being given mercury to dye pennies with in high school chemistry labs, he said. “We ask people not to take mercury exposure for granted. I guess the way I usually describe it to folks is, I’m old enough to remember going to the dentist, when I was much younger, when the dentist wanted to X-ray my mouth, he actually held the film inside my mouth with his index finger. Now what do they do? They go and hide behind the lead wall.”
Charles County Public Schools will refine its hazardous materials procedures to include one specifically for mercury spills and train staff who might have to implement them, O’Malley-Simpson said.
“One of the things we will be looking at now, based on suggestions both from the La Plata Volunteer Fire Department and the hazmat teams and MDE, is coming up with very specific procedures for mercury and the training of any staff and any substitutes who may be in a room where that’s contained,” she said.