- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Metro officials said yesterday that mercury was found on one of the five buses tested in connection with a mercury spill at Ballou High School in Southeast, and assured bus riders that they were not in danger of contamination by the toxic substance.

“Metro bus riders need not be alarmed,” said Dr. Michael Richardson, chief medical officer for the D.C. Department of Health.

“Elemental mercury is not readily absorbed into the body and the levels found in the buses would not represent any significant risk to riders getting on and off the bus,” he said.

The bus was contaminated after a student confiscated a vial of mercury from an unlocked chemistry laboratory at Ballou last week and distributed the liquid metal to classmates, who contaminated themselves, classroom walls, the cafeteria, the school gymnasium and hallways. The students carried the substance home on their clothing and book bags, and those who rode buses contaminated at least one.

“The good news is that the levels of mercury found on bus number 2223 were low and we’re waiting for final results from the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson.

Metro has identified seven bus drivers who operated the bus between 3:30 p.m. Oct. 2, when the students boarded it, and Oct. 7, when it was pulled off-line for testing.

Metro officials confirm that no mercury was found at the Southern Annex Garage in Southeast, where the bus was stored.

The contaminated bus will be cleaned by the Health Department. The EPA will determine when it will return to service.

The bus drivers were given blood tests for mercury contamination in accordance with the department’s instructions. Other Metro employees who worked on the bus in that period also have been tested. School and Metro officials report that no one has exhibited signs of mercury-related illness.

“The good news is that there has not been significant risk to residents, and we have not seen anyone with medical symptoms from mercury exposure. [However], we will continue to evaluate people who have been involved,” he said.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning include shortness of breath, cough, nausea and diarrhea and usually appear within 12 to 24 hours after exposure.

Dr. Richardson said that unlike the cases of anthrax exposure in 2001, in which antibiotics were distributed, these mercury exposures do not require treatment with oral medications.

“We have to make sure we remove the heavy offending metal, and no medication has to be taken, because the level of exposure has not been toxic,” he said.

The EPA and the Health Department have been working for the past six days to decontaminate the high school at 3401 Fourth St. SE.

A process was put in place Oct. 6 for students to drop off the clothes worn on the day of the mercury spill. School officials said 1,177 students and staff have been screened and 250 bags of clothing have been submitted for contamination analysis.

“What we realize is that this is a much wider situation than we initially thought. Initially this was only a school which needed cleaning, but now we recognize there are houses and possibly other structures that may need cleaning,” Dr. Richardson said.

As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the EPA had screened the homes of 17 students and found two residences with elevated mercury levels. EPA teams have to test an additional 30 homes for contamination.

School officials said all items of clothing collected from students that contain mercury vapor levels exceeding federal safety guidelines — 10 micrograms per cubic meter — will be retained for further investigation. Items falling below the threshold will be returned to owners within 48 hours.

Dr. Richardson said he does not know the cost associated with the cleanup, but commended Mayor Anthony A. Williams for commitment to the safety of faculty, students and affected residents.

Since being evacuated Oct. 2, the 1,300 students who attend Ballou have been bused to two other locations in the city for classes. About 300 ninth-graders are attending classes at Hart Middle School in Southeast, and the remaining students, in grades 10 through 12, are taking classes at the old Washington Convention Center in Northwest.

William Wilhoyte, assistant superintendent for high schools, said there’s always a challenge when a high school has to be moved overnight. But students’ well-being and education come first, he said.

“We must create [an environment] of normalcy and continue to create opportunities for our young men and women. The city has been a great partner in this with all of the agencies stepping in, whether it’s the Department of Health or Metropolitan Police Department or the EPA. We have a host of partners in this process,” he said.

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