It will be at least next week before a Gardnerville middle school reopens following decontamination after a student brought a quarter cup of mercury to the classrooms.
Superintendent John Soderman said school and health officials want to be absolutely sure there is no risk from small amounts of the metal that spilled in the gymnasium and a classroom at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School.
"We're not overdoing or underdoing anything," Soderman said. "I don't want anybody to worry that school would reopen before it's safe."
Nobody has reported feeling ill since the spill.
Soderman said the cleanup, including removal of carpets from two classrooms and replacement of some student lockers, has cost more than $100,000.
Soderman said if the district has to replace the gym floor and a school bus, that would tally an additional $250,000.
He said students would not be reimbursed by the district for contaminated materials including clothing, backpacks and even notebooks that were discarded.
"Anything (officials) felt was unsafe became toxic waste," he said. "We can't turn it loose to you and cause any risk to you or your family."
Students whose notes were discarded will be given the opportunity to get new ones before exams are given, Soderman said.
Soderman said insurance probably would not cover the damage to the school, but the district would file a claim. He said the district also is looking at the possibility of litigation against the student.
The student, meanwhile, has been suspended for 10 days and could face expulsion, according to Roy Casey, assistant superintendent of education services.
If classes resume on Tuesday, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it would be two weeks after the student brought the mercury to the facility.
Soderman said the district plans to make up the lost time. Options including adding the days at the end of the school year, double sessions or longer school days.
The Nevada Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday it will sponsor a new program to collect and safely dispose of metallic mercury that Nevadans have in their homes.
The decision comes in the wake of the contaminations at the middle school and in a Clark County home, Environmental Protection Deputy Administrator Jolaine Johnson said.
"We do not want people to get alarmed over these incidents and start dumping whatever mercury they have down the sink or in their trash cans," she said. "It can cause serious health problems and environmental damage if not handled properly."
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What is Mercury?
- Mercury is a naturally occurring metal which has several forms.
- The metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid. If heated, it is a colorless, odorless gas.
- Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda and also used in thermometers, dental fillings, and batteries.
- Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or "salts," which are usually white powders or crystals.
- Mercury salts are used in skin-lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments.
How might you be exposed to mercury?
- Eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury (The most common form of mercury salts)
- Breathing vapors in air from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels.
- Release of mercury from dental work and medical treatments.
- Breathing contaminated workplace air or skin contact during use in the workplace (dental, health services, chemical, and other industries that use mercury).
How does mercury affect your health?
- The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury.
- Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus.
- Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.
- Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation.
What can you do if you think you have been exposed?
- Tests are available to measure mercury levels in the body.
- Blood or urine samples are used to test for exposure to metallic mercury and to inorganic forms of mercury.
- Mercury in whole blood or in scalp hair is measured to determine exposure to methylmercury.
- Your doctor can take samples and send them to a testing laboratory.
Source: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts46.html (The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Web site)