Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mercury Spill at Eagle Ridge Academy

Updated 10/13/07: Our school, Eagle Ridge Academy was the lead story on at least one local news channel (KSTP Video KARE Video) tonight. A considerable amount of liquid mercury (UPDATE: two teaspoons according the the StarTribune) was found to have spilled or was intentionally released into a cabinet in the science room.

Reportedly, one student was found to have been markedly more contaminated from the neck down and could potentially be the perpetrator (update: the school has since retracted this in an email to parents, citing conclusive evidence found by authorities).

(Update: A staff member's child, presumably who is not a student at ERA, was apparently the person responsible for the spill.)

While these as yet unfounded rumors as to the cause and the conditions that may have contributed to the mercury spill, the potential costs of such a spill could be devastating.

Questions will revolve around the care in securing the school's supply of mercury and if in fact a student is implicated, what responsibility that student and his or her parents will bear for the cost of decontamination and cleanup.

Costs can range from a couple thousand to tens of thousands of dollars to clean up a mercury spill in a school not to mention days or weeks that the school may need to remain closed for the cleanup.

Students witnessed multiple emergency vehicles and hazardous material personnel on hand while they sat in chartered buses in the parking lot for several hours.

School is cancelled tomorrow.

Does a school have insurance for this? Could an event like this cripple a young school financially and result in its closure?

Conversation at our dinner table tonight culminated in a valid question:

Why do schools need to have Mercury on hand in the first place?

Even a small amount of Mercury spilled in a room can evaporate slowly and contaminate the entire room. Exposure to Mercury can lead to hospitalization and long-term health effects. Heavy exposure to the vapor can lead to death.

The more I search the Internet and learn about mercury, the more utterly unbelievable it becomes that there is any valid or practical reason for a school to keep it on hand.


Bike Bubba said...

Well, every school has about a kG of the stuff in the flourescent lights. So when those break, there is a few mg exposure per light broken.

That said, I'm not quite sure what chemical lessons cannot be taught without a bunch of liquid mercury. Ouch. Will pray for your school.

Judi Ingison said...

As Director of Eagle Ridge Academy I would like to correct information posted on this blog. In a situation like this it is very important that rumors are stopped. The school has been forthright in keeping parents up to date on the situation with correct information and it is unfortuate that individuals who are not "in the know" make statements to the media or elsewhere.

First, we NEVER released information regarding contamination of a student in any form and as such there was never a retraction statement. Since the spill occured in an isolated area that was not accessbile to students we were faily certain from the start that our students were not contaminated. We had to check the shoes of a limited number of students in case the material had somehow been tracked out of the storage area and into two classrooms. The amount of the substance that was spilled appeared to be minimal and clean up specialists have not made a final determination on the amount of substance spilled. So any reports on the volume of the substance are without merit.

Secondly, it is important to note that the enviromental specialist handling the incident determined that all of our hallways and classrooms were "clean" meaning no exposure to the substance. Contamination was limited to the science storage cabinet area.

As we noted in our up date to parents, approximately seven pairs of shoes were found to have had minimal exposure to vapors - not the substance. The shoes are being aired out and can be worn again.

For years high schools have used mercury in science labs. Some of us old timers remember being able to physically handle the material without gloves. This substance is not uncommon in high school labs.

Last year Governor Pawlenty signed legislation requiring schools to stop purchasing mercury by the end of 2007 and dispose of it by 2009. Eagle Ridge Academy is complying with this directive.