Hancock Schools Search For Mercury Contamination

Mercury contamination will keep Charles B. Murphy Elementary School closed again Friday. High levels of the chemical were found at the Hancock County school overnight.

As we first told you this week, a middle school student brought at least one bottle of mercury to school Monday. It was passed around among several students on three different busses. DEQ crews found traces of mercury on those busses. But the contamination was much worse at the elementary school.

"What we're trying to do right now is get our arms around the problem," Dean Ullock with the EPA said.

Hazmat crews spent Thursday afternoon formulating a plan of attack to clean up contaminated classrooms and offices at Charles B. Murphy Elementary.

"We've grabbed a few items that we know to be heavily contaminated we've removed those opened up the windows and turned on the heat to ventilate the building let it breath," Ullock said.

School officials say a student brought the mercury to school Monday. Traces of it turned up on three buses. But the largest amount was found at Charles B. Murphy, where a school custodian may have inadvertently compounded the problem Wednesday night.

"When they buffed the floor, we think what happened is they inadvertently spread the contamination. The levels are 3 to 4 times higher than we'd like to see," Ullock said.

Mercury can cause serious health problems. It's the chemical you find in thermometers, florescent lights and even tennis shoes that light up.

"It probably seems to be harmless however in this case it's not harmless it's contaminated quite a lot of things," Brian Adam with the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency said.

Letters went home Thursday asking parents of those students who think they had direct contact with the mercury to bring in specific items.

"If parents will help them gather up their outer clothing, shoes, and a back pack, if they had one. Put them in a plastic bag, zip tie it up, and bring it to us out at the Vo-Tech Center near Hancock High School. EPA will go in and analyze each one of those bags," Ullock said.

So far there are no reports of any students or staff members getting sick from being exposed to the mercury. But until the chemical is gone, students will stay away.

Exposure to high levels of mercury over a short period of time can make you ill. Symptoms include coughing, tightness of the chest, and trouble breathing.

by Al Showers