Is Mercury Really Bad?

The little bottle of mercury in chemistry teacher Paulette Drake's classroom weighs a whopping 15 pounds. The Gulfport High teacher says she never opens the bottle. She brings it out just to show her students what it looks like and to let them feel how heavy it is.

"There's a lot of rules in chemical classrooms now and one of the rules is don't use any mercury compound so we totally don't use it in any kind of experiments anymore," Drake said.

Drake says that's because regular exposure to mercury causes health problems. She says she can understand why there were so many precautions taken at the two schools in Hancock County that closed after mercury was found in them.

"I don't know the medical data behind it, but I know the threshold limit values which we can take in are probably minuscule. It would still bother me as a parent and as a teacher to be in an enclosed environment and be exposed to it day after day after day."

Health officials say depending on the amount, mercury contamination at the two schools can be dangerous.

"EPA has set those amounts and that's why they're in there... because the amounts have exceeded their minimal amounts," says Dr. Bob Travnicek.

But the chairman of Gulfport High School's science department isn't convinced mercury is so bad. Ray Wilson says we eat it in some fish. He calls the EPA cleanup a lot of hype.

"You know, we could go in and probably find mercury in a lot of buildings all over the coast if we really wanted to look for it close enough, you know trace amounts that they're looking for. I think we're over-reacting to that situation," says Wilson.