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Public Health Responds to Mercury Exposure Incident at BR Elementary

  • 30 November 2017
  • Author: Brit Ferguson
  • Number of views: 3981

The Navajo County Public Health Services District (NCPHSD) is working closely with the Blue Ridge Unified Schools District (BRUSD), Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), and other responding agencies and commercial corporations to respond to an incident of mercury exposure at the Blue Ridge Elementary School.

After school had concluded on November 27th, it was discovered that students had been handling the neuro-toxin in a 5th grade classroom. School administration received notice of the events and contacted hazardous material response authorities immediately. The eight students and one faculty member who came in direct contact with the metal and their homes were examined for traces of mercury. Small amounts of mercury were located and disposal procedures were taken on clothing items. 

On the morning of November 28th, a second response team consisting of ADEQ and NCPHSD response personnel conducted mercury exposure screening of two classrooms and determined the levels were significant enough for testing of the students in contact with the adjacent classrooms. A total of over 140 students and staff were screened for mercury exposure, and 55 students tested above the federally allowed levels of mercury exposure on their footwear. ADEQ and NCPHSD response personnel took the actions necessary to mitigate the possibility of illness to students, staff and faculty members by seizing the footwear. The removal of footwear reduces the chance of spreading the neuro-toxin to common household objects as well as home contacts. Other items screened involved clothing and hands, and no elevated levels of mercury were detected on anyone’s person. 

While the amount of mercury leaked was limited to the size of a pencil eraser, it is extremely important to contain such areas to reduce the effects of chronic and acute exposure to those directly involved. BRUSD administration announced an early release on November 28 to allow further hazardous material detection and restoration to move forward without interruption. 

Inhalation of mercury vapor is one of the primary routes of exposure to mercury and the biggest concern during the event. Inhaled vapor is almost completely absorbed by the lungs about up to 80 percent. Mercury has no odor, and thus, chemical odor provides no warning of hazardous concentrations. Mercury vapor is heavier than air and may therefore accumulate in poorly ventilated or low-lying areas.

Children exposed to the same levels of mercury vapor as adults may receive larger doses due to size differences. In addition, they may be exposed to higher levels than adults in the same location because of their short stature and the higher levels of mercury vapor found nearer to the ground.

Short-term exposure to metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation. In the unlikely event that your child is experiencing these symptoms and attends the affected school, contact your health care provider. Tests are available to measure mercury levels in the body.

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For more information: 

Contact - Adam Wolfe
Navajo County Communications Manager
Phone: (928) 524-4165

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