- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

A Ballou High School science teacher who left a chemistry lab unsecured faces suspension after a student took a vial of mercury and spread it, contaminating the school, students’ homes and some Metro buses.

School officials said an investigation of the incident is continuing, so they cannot make a decision at this time about disciplinary action against the teacher and student involved.

But D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday the student should be punished if it is proved that the spreading of the mercury was malicious.

“This is a highly unusual and extraordinary situation,” he said during his weekly press briefing.

“If that student messed with the mercury, knew the dangers it posed, knew the school would be shut down for 20 to 30 days, then I think some tough love is required,” Mr. Williams said.

Prenell Neely, a D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman, said it was too soon to decide if the student should be disciplined.

“Right now all we want to do is be sure that everything is OK safetywise with the student,” she said.

School officials said the chemical was found in several areas of the school. Students were seen carrying the mercury in bags and throwing it at walls and at each other.

Mr. Williams said he expects the school system to make sure all of its procedures for storing potentially dangerous chemicals are reviewed, and changes made where necessary.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the D.C. Department of Health have been working to decontaminate Ballou at 3401 Fourth St. SE since students were evacuated Oct. 2. Between 1,100 and 1,300 students who go to Ballou are attending classes at Hart Middle School at 601 Mississippi Ave. SE and the old D.C. Convention Center in Northwest.

Tests were conducted on about 400 sets of clothing students wore the day of the incident, and officials were able to identify the student they believed was responsible for distributing the mercury to other students.

Officials said the student and his family members have not shown any symptoms of mercury poisoning, but a check of his home disclosed mercury levels in his bedroom were between 5 and 55 micrograms per cubic meter. The family has been evacuated while the home undergoes a thorough cleaning.

The EPA is conducting similar testing at the homes of 80 students whose clothing tested positive for mercury exposure, and on Metro buses along a bus lines the students are believed to have ridden.

“In an abundance of caution we pulled five buses out of service to be searched,” said Cheryl Johnson, a spokeswoman for Metro. We pulled the two on the schedule before and after the time the student boarded the bus.”

Since Thursday those buses have run on 10 lines, including: 90 and 92, which run from U street to Garfield; the A2 and A6, which run from Anacostia to Congress Heights; the D12, D13, and D14, which run from Southern Avenue to Suitland; the P17, which runs from Farragut Square to Fort Washington; the W4, which runs from Deanwood to Alabama Avenue; and the W17, which runs from Southern Avenue to Accokeek.Test results from the EPA on the final two buses were unavailable yesterday.

The first test results on three buses the EPA tested came back negative.

“We understand that the EPA is busy with the school and students’ houses, so we have gotten permission to contract Versar to complete the testing on the last two buses,” Miss Johnson said.

Mike Allred, chief of emergency response with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it is unlikely bus riders would be in any danger from the substance. He said the biggest concern with mercury is when it is in a vapor phase because it can be most harmful to developing neurological systems.

“The only real concern would be if there were any young babies or pregnant women on the bus that inhaled direct vapors from the substance itself,” he said. “It would have to be more than just residue off the students’ clothes.”

Officials say there are no reports or indications that any Metro passengers have been contaminated by the substance.

EPA officials said there has been a reduction in contamination, but work still must be done at the school.

“We are still unable to determine an exact date the school will be reopened,” said Vera Jackson, a Health Department spokeswoman. Miss Jackson said the cost of the cleanup has not been determined.

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