Monday, October 6, 2003

Hundreds of Ballou High School students, faculty and staff, who were screened yesterday for exposure to mercury, will continue to attend classes in the old D.C. Convention Center and Hart Middle School until the school building is deemed safe.

Cleanup efforts of the Southeast school might take from five to seven days, District officials said. But officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said they could not say how long the cleanup would take until they know how much mercury was found at the school.

“We will take our time to completely clean the school to make sure that there is no mercury left behind,” said Patricia Taylor, a community-involvement coordinator for the EPA. Miss Taylor could not estimate the cost of the cleanup.

“We need to make sure that we test every single room, every single public area, the office of the principal, everything,” said Marcos Aquino, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

School officials shut down Ballou Thursday after they learned that 250 milliliters, about half a cup, of the toxic chemical that was stored in an unused honors chemistry laboratory was removed and spread in several areas of the school. Witnesses had reported seeing students carrying the mercury in bags.

The chemical was found on the floors of the school’s cafeteria, its gym and several hallways and classrooms. Officials canceled classes at Ballou on Friday.

All visible mercury has been collected, but technicians wearing breathing respirators and equipped with mercury-vapor detectors continued to sweep the building yesterday to locate remaining traces.

“We found liquid mercury in some areas,” Mr. Aquino said. “There are certain levels that mercury vapors are toxic. Those are levels we are concerned about. … We certainly need to take this seriously. As the father of two children, I certainly have sensitivity to what is happening here.”

Between 1,100 and 1,300 students are enrolled at Ballou, school officials said.

Meanwhile, about 730 students, faculty and staff gathered at the school parking lot, where they were screened for mercury and vapors before being bused to the alternative classrooms. Ninth-graders went to Hart Middle School in the 600 block of Mississippi Avenue SE. The other students went to the old Convention Center downtown.

Clothing worn to Ballou Thursday was wrapped in bags and collected for additional screening. Shoes, coats and purses were checked with vapor detectors to prevent contamination from being spread to the locations temporarily being used by Ballou students.

About 400 students went unscreened, mainly because they attend night classes at Ballou. They, too, must be screened before they can attend classes at Hart or the Convention Center.

So far, there have been very few people who had some symptoms of possible exposure, said Michael S.A. Richardson, senior deputy director of the D.C. Department of Health.

The symptoms exhibited by people exposed to mercury include respiratory distress, Mr. Richardson said.

“Many of those turned out to be people who were just having a cold or people who were having some other illness not associated with mercury,” Mr. Richardson said.

A check of hospital emergency rooms indicated that no one had been treated since Thursday for symptoms indicating acute mercury exposure.

“Each passing day is more reassuring,” Mr. Richardson said. Health officials might have to do some follow-up screening in about six months, he said.

Mr. Aquino said a crew of 10 has been working around the clock in the cleanup and screening process.

About 95 percent of Ballou’s students are from below-poverty-level homes. The American Red Cross fed the students breakfast after they were screened for exposure.

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