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Healthy School Environments

Case Studies about Mercury Cleanups at Schools

An increasing number of metallic mercury spills have been reported to EPA in recent years. These spills create public health issues and generally necessitate costly cleanups. EPA cleanup costs for large spills of metallic mercury at schools can go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This page includes case studies of typical problems, incidents and cleanups found in schools throughout the United States. It is designed to:
  • help educate teachers and administrators about the different kinds of mercury spills that have occurred in schools
  • encourage elimination of the use of mercury in schools
  • promote proper management and disposal of mercury and mercury containing products, and
  • prevent mercury spills.
Case Studies:

Ballou High School, Washington DC

On October 2, 2003, the Washington, D.C.'s Fire Department Hazmat Unit responded to an emergency call unlike any call Ballou High School had ever had to make. What the D.C.'s Hazmat unit found that afternoon proved to be the beginning of a long, exhausting search for, and clean up of, an elemental mercury spill. A student had obtained 250 milliliters of liquid elemental mercury from a science laboratory and had sold some of it to other students. Students had to be dismissed. By the time the D.C. Hazmat Team and the D.C. public health officials arrived, it was too late to contain all the spills; varying amounts of mercury were found in the classrooms, gymnasium, and cafeteria. EPA responded by establishing a mobile command post, measuring mercury air concentrations and noting visual contamination of the science laboratory, cafeteria, gym and administration areas.

Contamination did not stop at the school. Students unknowingly carried mercury on contaminated shoes and clothing through the streets, onto city and school buses, and into their homes. Eleven homes and one common area were found to be contaminated and about 16 families were displaced for a month. EPA assisted with screening of residences.

As a result of the spill, Ballou High School was closed for 35 days and over 200 homes were tested for mercury contamination. Total cleanup costs were about $1,500,000.

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Hancock High School, Kiln, Mississippi

On September 10, 2003 at the request of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) an emergency response removal commenced at the Hancock High School, Hancock Co. Votech facility, and the Charles B. Murphy Elementary School located in Kiln, Mississippi. The response was conducted by the MDEQ, EPA, and Coast Guard.

Mercury air concentrations were measured and found to be above EPA levels. Contaminated areas were cleaned up using a spill control product and a mercury vacuum system. Three school buses were contaminated with mercury. The seats and flooring were removed. After a thorough cleaning of the buses, all seats were wiped down and the flooring disposed. Children's clothing was tested and some disposed. Private residences were screened and none were found to exceed EPA's action level. Mercury contaminated debris was transported as hazardous waste for disposal. Total cleanup costs were $200,000.

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Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School, Gardnerville, Nevada

Residents in northern Nevada found out first hand how dangerous mercury can be when dozens of middle school children in Gardnerville were exposed to mercury and the vapors it gives off. On January 6, 2003 at the request of the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP), an emergency response removal commenced at the Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School, Gardnerville, Nevada, Douglas Co. The response was conducted by the NDEP, EPA Region 9, and OSHA.

A student had brought a vial of liquid elemental mercury to school that morning that had been obtained from his grandfather's garage. The student shared the mercury with children on the bus and in the Boy's Locker Room. Liquid mercury was visible on the gym floor and in several classrooms. School staff determined that 61 students had come in contact with mercury. School officials implemented emergency procedures in a written Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that also included provisions for mercury, notified the fire department, and began to evacuate the school. The HVAC was shut down and the 61 students decontaminated. Mercury air concentrations were measured and found to be above EPA levels. Mercury was also found on the bus.

Contaminated areas were cleaned up using a spill control product (MercX) and by removing contaminated carpet. Once these activities were completed the temperature was raised in the school overnight. All clothing and personal effects from the 61 children were bagged and checked for mercury vapor. All of these bags were analyzed and found to have 10,000 parts per trillion (ppt) or greater of mercury vapor. The clothing and personal items were laid in the gym with ventilation and later laid in the sun and allowed to air out. The bags were reanalyzed and 60% were found to have 10,000 ppt or greater mercury vapor. Clothing eventually exhibiting vapor concentrations less than 300 ppt was returned. Remaining contaminated clothing was disposed as hazardous waste. After removing carpet and using spill control product, remaining localized areas that exhibited mercury concentrations greater than 3,000 ppt were treated overnight with propane heaters. Clothing in lockers in the Boy's Locker Room and the locker room drain were found to exhibit greater mercury vapor concentrations. It was recommended to school officials that the locker room remain closed until additional cleanup efforts could be completed. The school was closed for at least four days and cleanup costs will exceed $100,000.

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Saylor Avenue, Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada

Severe poisoning from long-term exposure to mercury vapor sent a Las Vegas 17-year-old youth to a hospital's intensive care unit for a week, and the exposure may cause lifelong effects. The 17-year-old played with elemental mercury at a residence over a 2-3 month period. A large volume of mercury was distributed throughout the house, backyard and pool area. The 17-year-old's grandmother had swept mercury out the back door and had vacuumed up some mercury in an attempt to cleanup the house. Please be aware that mercury should never be vacuumed, except by professionals with specialized equipment, as it is much more easily vaporized through vacuuming and constitutes an even greater health threat.

On January 10, 2004 the 17-year-old was rushed to the hospital for emergency medical care. The grandmother and mother were also taken to the hospital. Firefighters and emergency response personnel responded to a 911 call and were notified that, as much as one quart, was in the house. The National Response Center was contacted and the EPA, Clark County Health District, and the Las Vegas Fire Department responded.

Mercury air concentrations in the house were measured and found to be above EPA levels. First responders fire truck, a first aid kit, an oxygen tank, a heart monitor bag, and a uniform were found to be contaminated with mercury. At the hospital, clothing from the family was obtained and found to be contaminated with mercury. The first aid kit, oxygen tank and victim's clothing were returned to the house for treatment. The family has been relocated by the American Red Cross until the home could be decontaminated.

The family dog, Snowball was found to be contaminated with mercury. Snowball was decontaminated through several baths and his hair shaved to allow for the dog to be boarded. The grandmother's car was cleaned with a special mercury vacuum. Personal effects, housing materials and furniture were bagged and mercury concentrations detected. Material exceeding 10 ug/cubic meter mercury vapor were disposed in a lined roll-off bin. Disposed material volume was 60 cubic meters and included the dishwasher, refrigerator, linoleum, kitchen center island, all carpeting, bathrooms, and concrete from cutting out sidewalk cracks that had filled with mercury.

The house was stripped to bare concrete and materials disposed. The bare concrete was treated with epoxy to stop the continued release of mercury vapor. The water from the pool was removed and transported as wastewater for proper disposal. Contaminated soils and the swimming pool were excavated and disposed. Mercury contaminated debris was transported as hazardous waste for disposal.

Total cleanup costs are in excess of $131,827.03. This does not include the cost of renovating the house. To determine if mercury had been transported to schools, interviews were conducted with school officials. Further, the 17-year-old's high school classroom was inspected and no mercury was detected. Emergency responders from Region 9 have indicated that most mercury contamination spills in schools are the result of children bringing mercury to school.

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Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School, Charlton, Massachusetts

In 2001 and 2002, the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection sponsored a pilot project to support schools interested in removing mercury from school buildings and in educating faculty, staff and students about the hazards of mercury. Specifically, the Commonwealth was interested in assisting programs at schools willing to: educate students, faculty and staff about the potential hazards of mercury; identify and remove all mercury products from the school and replace them with non-mercury alternatives; and adopt a policy of purchasing only non-mercury products wherever possible. Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School, located in Charlton, Massachusetts, made the decision to protect the health of students, faculty and staff, the environment, and the school's budget, by eliminating the use of mercury in classroom instruction and restricting the purchase of common products that contain mercury.

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