- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

D.C. school officials have canceled classes today at Cardozo High School in Northwest, after mercury was found in a stairwell yesterday for the second time in eight days.

Officials said five to seven pea-sized pellets of liquid mercury were found at about 10:30 a.m. in a third-floor stairwell, two floors above where similar droplets were found Feb. 23.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. fire department, said the crews found high levels of mercury vapors only on the third floor. No one reported being sick with mercury poisoning.

Officials said 88 persons tested positive for high levels of mercury on their clothing out of the about 700 students and teachers tested.

Among them were two students who are pregnant.

The contamination was confined mostly to shoes, and officials confiscated shoes and some clothing to keep the contamination from spreading.

It took about 11 hours to screen everyone in the school.

The latest discovery frustrated Principal Reginald Ballard Jr., who four days ago announced that the school was safe to reopen after last week’s incident.

“I’m not angry … but this is a tremendous inconvenience,” he said shortly after mercury was discovered yesterday. “But the message remains the same. If this is the work of students, they will be caught and prosecuted.”

Authorities made no arrests in yesterday’s incident, but a city official said investigators “have some evidence.” The official declined to comment further.

Mr. Etter said the students who tested positive for contamination had mercury on their shoes. A contractor removed the shoes, which were destroyed.

City school officials said they had not decided whether to close the school tomorrow.

Investigators could not say whether this was a new case of mercury contamination or whether the mercury was left over from last week’s incident. Two students have been charged in that incident.

Mr. Ballard speculated that the newly discovered mercury was not detected by federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crews when they cleaned the school of the mercury that was found last week. He declined to say who found the mercury but said it was in a corner of the stairwell.

However, Mr. Etter said the mercury was likely new “based upon EPA’s work,” because the agency carefully checked the school before it reopened Tuesday.

“Knowing how methodical and thorough they were going through the building — I mean, they cleaned every inch of this place — it would be hard for me to believe that they missed anything,” Mr. Etter said.

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services crews arrived at the school about 30 minutes after the mercury was discovered and remained at the school for the rest of the day. Officials immediately put the school on lockdown when the mercury was found.

For most of the day, firetrucks, police cruisers, emergency medical vehicles, a D.C. Department of Health trailer and hazardous-material and EPA vehicles were parked in front of the high school at 1300 Clifton Street NW.

Police cordoned off the 1200 block of Clifton Street NW with yellow tape, prohibiting vehicles and pedestrians from entering the one-way street. Traffic began to bottleneck on 13th and Clifton streets almost immediately.

Later in the day, police opened the street only to those who live there.

Several parents, after hearing about the latest discovery, rushed to the school to pick up their children. Some stood outside the school for hours in the frigid weather, waiting for their children to come out of the building.

Yulaine White, a mother of three girls who attend Cardozo, stood outside the building for several hours. She said two of her daughters suffer from asthma.

“We went through this mess last week,” Ms. White said, but “I’m very pleased with [the agencies’] quick response. I had to wait for three hours last week. If I have to be here three or four hours again, I’ll be here. I just want to see my daughters.”

Cardozo has about 850 students.

Authorities used two hand-held wands to find out how many persons might have been exposed to mercury. Authorities gave each student or staff member who was screened a red wristband. They also gave each student a letter explaining what had happened. Crews also tested each classroom.

Delonte Kelly, 17, received his red wristband and was allowed to leave the school early in the day. The 11th-grader said he was on the first floor when the school was put on lockdown.

“I believe they did not get all of the mercury from the last time,” he said. “I feel very frustrated because we couldn’t use the bathroom. I was stuck in the principal’s office and mad about missing school.”

But, Delonte was able to get lunch, while other students held up in classrooms hung out of one of the school windows a banner that read, “We Need Food.”

Mr. Etter said the process is painstaking, partly because of the long setup time.

Dr. Thomas Calhoun, with the D.C. Health Department, said he did not expect the mercury to result in medical problems, although small amounts of the liquid metal and its vapors can pose a health risk in a confined place.

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

“One would have to have … long exposures to the vapors. Breathing it in for hours or days and that has not happened. So far, there have been no medical emergencies,” Dr. Calhoun said.

Dr. Calhoun said nearly 500 students and staff were screened at Cardozo after last week’s incident.

In that incident, two boys — 15 and 16 — have been charged with dumping a hazardous material, cruelty to children and handling stolen property. Authorities reportedly focused on three students after examining pictures from a school-surveillance site.

Their names have not been released because they are juveniles. They were released into the custody of their mothers. The 15-year-old suspect also tested positive for marijuana after he was arrested, prosecutors told the court.

The police investigation into both incidents includes questions about where the mercury was obtained.

Mr. Ballard has said all mercury was removed from Cardozo right after a 2003 mercury spill at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast. One student was charged in connection with that incident, in which about a cup full of mercury contaminated the school. Students spread the mercury throughout the community.

A D.C. official said yesterday that student was disciplined only through the school system. Ballou was shut down for more than a month.

Crews finished cleaning Cardozo on Sunday, but classes did not resume until Tuesday because of a snow day Monday. The $150,000 cleanup cost was paid through the EPA’s Superfund.

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