Prank at PG school leads to mercury contamination

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Officials at a Prince George’s County high school are investigating a possible mercury contamination, the second such incident in as many months in the D.C. metropolitan area, school officials said yesterday.

A ninth-grader at Forestville Military Academy broke a medical thermometer that contained a few milliliters of mercury during a math class Friday morning. A school bus driver found the mercury, which was in a container, on his bus that afternoon, school officials said.

Traces of mercury also were found on a desk in a classroom, the school bus and on the clothing of 14 students and one teacher, school officials said. The academy is at 7001 Beltz Drive in Forestville.

Prince George’s County Fire and Rescue spokesman Capt. Chauncey Bowers said it is not certain whether the breaking of the thermometer was accidental or a possible copycat of a similar incident at Ballou High School in Southeast. Ballou was recently closed for nearly a month because of mercury contamination.

“We’re still trying to get to the bottom of [what happened in Prince George’s County],” Capt. Bowers said. “The bottom line is that the student brought the thermometer to the school, which had no mercury in it. It was broken at some point and the mercury was put in another container.”

School officials yesterday did not comment on possible disciplinary actions against the student. No illnesses have been reported, Capt. Bowers said.

About 90 students had been in Room No. 226 since the incident occurred, school officials said. Authorities did not learn about the incident until 6:30 p.m. Friday, when it was reported to the fire and emergency medical services department.

“The student carried around [the mercury] for a portion of the day, then the container was taken on the bus,” Capt. Bowers said. “The bus driver’s discovery of the container was the [authorities] first knowledge of the mercury.”

School officials said they have been trying to contact the parents of students who were in that classroom and who rode on Bus No. 484, where the mercury was found. Anyone who might have come into contact with the mercury is recommended to get their clothes tested as a precautionary measure.

Parents can bring the clothes in sealed trash bags to the school tomorrow between 9 a.m. and noon.

A contractor has already been enlisted to conduct the cleanup of the school, which is closed this week for Thanksgiving break. School officials said the cleanup should be completed before students return to class Dec. 1.

At Ballou, as much as 8 ounces of mercury was spilled by a 16-year-old student in early October. The student, who was arrested Oct. 27, stole it from an unused chemistry lab, authorities said. Unsafe levels of mercury were detected in several areas of the school and at 17 homes.

Ballou was closed from Oct. 2 to Nov. 5., while an estimated $1 million cleanup of the building was conducted. About 1,000 students attended classes at alternate sites.

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