Boy Brings Mercury to School & Forces Evacuation

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A Douglas County middle school was evacuated and dozens of students were decontaminated as a precaution Tuesday after one youth brought mercury to school.

No serious injuries or illnesses were reported at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School in Gardnerville, the Douglas County sheriff's office said.

But an emergency response team from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional headquarters in San Francisco was on the way to the scene Tuesday night and the school was likely to remain closed on Wednesday as the clean up continues, EPA spokesman Mark Merchant said.

"Our response team will determine the extent of the contamination," he told The Associated Press late Tuesday.

Local hazardous materials experts were called and the school was locked down when the toxic material was discovered about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sheriff's Sgt. Tom Mezzetta said.

One student apparently brought about one-fourth cup of the mercury from home and other children joined in playing with it, Mezzetta said.

Several students handled the mercury on the bus ride to school and the substance was spilled in several areas inside the school property, he said.

It is "extremely unlikely" any of the students will suffer ill effects of exposure, he said. But they all were supplied with written materials outlining exposure hazards and possible reactions, including coughing or wheezing, muscular tremors, loss of appetite, nausea or diarrhea.

Mercury is a heavy metal liquid that gives off vapors at room temperature. Experts say it can be inhaled into the lungs or passed through the skin into the bloodstream and cause an array of health problems, including coughing and breathing difficulty.

Very high exposures to mercury vapor in the air can cause acute poisoning and possible death.

Mezzetta said students were separated into two groups - those who were exposed to the element and those who were not.

Between 60 and 75 children were kept on school grounds to be decontaminated, a procedure that involved a shower and a change of clothes, Mezzetta said.

"We've had parents bringing down clothing, or other types of temporary clothing are being provided," Mezzetta said.

"Once we get them all cleaned up, they'll be sent home or picked up by parents."

Other students who had no contact with the mercury were either allowed to walk home or were taken to the Douglas County fairgrounds for about an hour before being bused home.

Mezzetta said parents should check with the Douglas County School District Wednesday morning to determine if the school will be open.

EPA officials will be on hand at the school Wednesday to hand out additional written materials to parents, Merchant said.

School officials were not immediately available for comment, and several parents complained about a lack of information school officials were providing about the status of their children more than four hours after the exposure.

"We have not been allowed to see our kids or talk to our kids," Cindy Fencl said about 3 p.m. Tuesday.

She said her 9th-grade daughter was among those on the list to be decontaminated and her 12-year-old son had been bused to the fairgrounds.

"I asked them what the decontamination would entail and they couldn't tell me anything," she told The Associated Press.

"The attitude at the school has been that the kids should not have been around it (the mercury). But if another child brings mercury to the school, my kids wouldn't know what it is," she said.

Fencl said she started telephoning school officials about the incident shortly after noon and was told they would call her back, but she said they never did.

"It's just unacceptable. They say the policy is that the child belongs to school until it is time to release them. Anytime we have an emergency it's like pulling teeth for information," she said.

Mezzetta said the school district called a private company, which will arrive Wednesday to monitor the school's air quality.

He said once those tests are completed, the EPA will conduct a final check of the grounds for contamination before the school reopens.