Mercury contamination suspected at Dallas elementary school




Posted on October 29, 2012 at 4:54 PM

Updated Monday, Oct 29 at 8:22 PM

Urban Park Elementary School

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DALLAS – The Environmental Protection Agency conducted an unusual test Monday afternoon on the back lot of Urban Park Elementary School.

Federal staffers placed a pair of shoes in each of a dozen plastic garbage bags –– they'd been worn by a student who may have stepped in a puddle of quicksilver in recent weeks.

Why? Because in heat, mercury, the scientific term for quicksilver, vaporizes.

"And then they will test the air in that bag and determine if there are elevated levels of mercury," said Dallas Independent School District spokesperson Jon Dahlander. "If we do find that then we may have to track back to their house and determine if there is elevated levels of mercury within their house too. It's just giving us clues as to where to proceed from here."

The investigation into mercury contamination at Urban Park began this weekend. Officials say three siblings walking along the nearby railroad tracks found a bottle of pure mercury about two weeks ago. They'd been playing with it at home since then.

Mercury is commonly used in many household items, including fluorescent lighting, thermostats, and button batteries.  When it becomes aerosolized, however, it can be dangerous. After experiencing serious respiratory symptoms and a rash, one child was taken to the hospital Wednesday.  

That child was discharged with a viral diagnosis. Symptoms of mercury poisoning can be similar to seasonal viruses. Only after returning home and questioning her children did their mother learn that the two found and were playing with a bottle of mercury.

"So mom started wondering," explains Dr. Kurt Kleinschmidt, a toxicologist with the North Texas Poison Center and investigator on this this case."'Huh, others are getting sick here at the house too, and we got this mercury, is there a connection?'  

So mom very astutely came back Thursday and said, 'They're all sick here and we've got this bottle of mercury.'  She brought it with her."

Health authorities from the EPA, Dallas County Health and Human services, and the North Texas Poison Center immediately became involved. On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency and health authorities converged on the family's home and detected high levels of mercury.

"Their home was contaminated with the mercury," said Dr. Kleinschmidt. "It was spilled around the home.  which is a small enclosed area that was warm on the inside which helps the mercury vaporize more. And they were playing with this day in and day out for 11 days."

That home has been deemed unsafe for living until the contamination can be cleaned up. Upon questioning, one child also confessed to spilling some of the mercury at the elementary October 17.  

Dallas ISD was unaware of the situation until late Friday. Tests were conducted this past weekend to confirm mercury.  DISD has temporarily shut down a portion of the second story of Urban Park Elementary where the spill occurred for cleanup. 

"Our priority is making sure the children and teachers are safe," says Dahlander. "We are doing this out of an abundance of caution."

"My daughter goes here and she's only five," says concerned parent Nalleli Rubio, "I mean it's scary to think that this happened here at our school." 

Health authorities want to reassure parents that it is unlikely students were exposed enough to be in any danger.  

"What counts is being around it on a continuous basis where it has aerosolized and are breathing it in," said Dr. Kleinschmidt. "I feel confident that the kids in that school are fine."

Health authorities are concerned that a janitor who unknowingly cleaned up the mercury could be at risk. He will be tested Tuesday. Health authorities are also tracking where the bottle mercury came from and where it was destined for; those answers may remain a mystery as the element is commonly used in many industries.  

The container was about the size of an Elmer's Glue bottle. 

DISD sent home a letter with Urban Park parents Monday. District officials have scheduled a question and answer meeting on Tuesday night.