- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is encouraging District residents to get rid of thermometers containing mercury, to prevent future incidents of mercury poisoning from spills of the type that occurred at Ballou High School in Southeast.

Under a program set up over the past weekend, residents can drop off old thermometers at Engine 12 fire station on the corner of Fifth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“At the close of business the first day we only had one thermometer turned in, but we want people to know it is OK to turn things in,” said Alan Etter, spokesman for the fire department.

“They are not breaking any laws having old thermometers, and if they feel uncomfortable by having the items they can turn them in to the fire station. As a matter of fact we are looking to add more stations to the drop-off list,” Mr. Etter said.

“We want as many people as possible to participate in the program. But I cannot stress enough, if people have thermometers that have broken and find mercury they should call 911. Let [the hazardous-materials staff] handle the situation — do not try to gather it [mercury] and bring it down to the station,” he said.

Meanwhile, D.C. health officials reported yesterday that no health problems have turned up in the 13 days since mercury contaminated Ballou High School at 3401 Fourth St. SE and later was found in the homes of some of the students and on a Metro bus.

“The very good news is, there still has not been any one person to exhibit signs of mercury poisoning,” said Briant Coleman, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Health. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include shortness of breath, coughing, nausea and diarrhea and usually occur within 24 hours after exposure.

Ballou was contaminated after a student took a vial of mercury from an unsecured chemistry laboratory and distributed the substance to classmates. The students spread it around the school building, then transported the toxic metal to a Metro bus and to their homes on clothing and book bags.

Since Oct. 6, Environmental Protection Agency and D.C. Department of Health officials have screened about 1,200 people and 86 residences for mercury exposure. About 30 persons were displaced from their homes and are living in a hotel and their expenses are being paid by the D.C. government.

Health officials confirmed they have completed testing on the last of those persons exposed to mercury as a result of the Ballou incident, and that fewer than a dozen have been referred to hospitals for additional tests.

“We’ve contacted everyone who we feel needs to be contacted,” Mr. Coleman said.

Officials also reported that another residence tested positive for elevated levels of mercury, bringing to nine the number of homes needing decontamination.

Ballou students on Monday began a second week of classes at Hart Middle School in Southeast and the old D.C. Convention Center in Northwest, where they were assigned after their school was contaminated. Ballou was evacuated on Oct. 2, and school officials said yesterday they do not know how long reopening will take.

“We now have EPA crews working 24 hours, seven days a week to decontaminate the site,” Mr. Coleman said.

Over the weekend, four sealed vials of mercury were found near the back gate at RFK Stadium on the corner of Oklahoma Avenue and Benning Road in Northeast. Mr. Etter said yesterday that police patrolling the area found the vials, each containing a “pea-size amount” of mercury in a resealable bag. Hazmat crews then turned the mercury over to Engine 12 for proper disposal.

“The public has no need to worry. Hazmat completed an environment assessment of the area and determined that there were no leaks,” he said.

The source of the mercury, and whether it came from Ballou, have not been determined, Mr. Etter said.

Officials have not released estimates of how much the cleanup will cost, or whether those involved in the substance’s initial spread will be punished.

“Our environmental-crimes unit is still investigating the case,” said D.C. police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile, indicating that criminal charges are being considered.

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