- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

Metro officials yesterday reported that tests on the shoes of seven bus drivers revealed that one pair of shoes tested positive for mercury contamination after a Ballou High School student apparently carried mercury onto a city bus.

“The D.C. Health Department will contact the driver this weekend for further testing,” Metro spokesperson Cheryl Johnson said. “The EPA is going to retest the shoes today,” she said.

Environmental technicians continued testing and decontaminating the school and several homes tainted with the potentially toxic substance. As of noon yesterday, 1,256 persons, 333 bags, and 48 homes have been screened in connection with the mercury contamination, Environmental Protection Agency officials said. Out of all those screened 54 persons, 132 bags, and eight homes have tested positive for elevated levels of mercury.

EPA officials said the homes will have to undergo the same type of decontamination as the school. Although some families have opted to remain in their homes, 28 persons have voluntarily moved into hotels at city expense.

“There has been no one that has had any symptoms of toxic mercury exposure to date,” said Dr. Michael S.A. Richardson, the chief medical officer of the D.C. Health Department.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning include shortness of breath, cough, diarrhea and nausea and usually appear within 24 hours after exposure.

On Thursday, residents of a 17-unit apartment building on 49th Street SE were evacuated after a screening by the EPA found elevated levels of mercury in the building. At least 22 of those residents were bused to Greater Southeast Community Hospital to get blood tests.

“The 22 patients were received in our Emergency Department where on-duty physicians, nurses and other medical personnel promptly initiated the necessary procedures to determine whether their possible exposure to mercury had resulted in health risk requiring treatment,” hospital administrator Joan Phillips said in a statement.

She said if a patient tests positive for mercury toxicity an intravenous drug would be administered that binds with the mercury molecules in the bloodstream and carries them out of the body over several days.

Ballou High School, at 3401 Fourth St. SE, was contaminated after a student took a vial of mercury from an unsecured chemistry laboratory Oct. 2 and distributed the substance to classmates, who contaminated themselves and the building. The students carried the toxic substance home on their clothes and book bags, spreading the contamination to a Metro bus and many of their homes.

“Its clear that students were unaware of what they were dealing with, but now they have learned of the potentially hazardous impact of mercury,” said Elfreda Massie, chief of staff for D.C. Public Schools.

School and health officials said they don’t know how much mercury was taken from the school. Officials estimate that the vial could have held as much as 250 milliliters, but are not sure how much of the potentially poisonous metal actually was present.

“A sizable amount was found in the school and we hope that was most of it. But we cannot even get a volume number on what was found until it can be separated from the dust and soot,” said Marcos Aquino, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

After the incident last week, students were evacuated from the school and have been attending classes at Hart Middle School and the old convention center. School officials said they plan to make the best of the situation by implementing a “School Without Walls” program.

“The program will allow our students to take advantage of the history around them and give them expanded knowledge found in museums and national monuments,” school board member William Lockridge said.

Officials said they are hoping to gain information from students on who may have been exposed to the mercury and locations that are possibly contaminated.

“We have had good cooperation from students, and the information that we have gained from them has been accurate,” Dr. Richardson said.

“However, we are moving our focus from the school to the families and homes of the students affected by the spill,” he said.

“Many of the measures we have taken have been proactive in an effort to help protect those exposed, but so far there is no evidence of any harmful consequences,” Dr. Richardson said.

Meanwhile, D.C. government officials are tracking the cost of testing and cleanup. They are also looking at the expenses of caring for displaced families and using the city’s old convention center as an alternative classroom site.

“The mayor is considering declaring a public health emergency,” said Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mr. Williams. The city’s legal department is looking at liability and culpability issues and the Metropolitan Police Department is trying to determine whether any criminal charges should be filed.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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