- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

Today’s classes have been canceled at Cardozo High School after officials found traces of mercury in the building — the third such incident in 12 days.

The chemical was found a day after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified the building, at 1300 Clifton Place NW, safe to reopen after the previous incident. Two separate spills on Feb. 23 and Wednesday closed the Northwest school for nine days.

Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said the discovery of more mercury yesterday means the D.C. Health Department and the EPA will again take over the cleanup of the site.

The mercury was found yesterday in the school basement by a contractor cleaning up in preparation for today’s scheduled opening. About 17 cleaning-crew members were tested for exposure, and one’s shoes tested positive.

In addition to the droplets in the basement, firefighters found significant levels of mercury vapor, though not as high as the levels recorded last week when the school was closed for the second time in seven days, Mr. Etter said.

Schools Superintendent Clifford Janey, who said he had been given full assurance that the school was free of mercury, said he is “deeply disappointed.”

Cardozo students had missed three days of school before today’s cancellation, and school officials yesterday said the missed time will be made up.

School officials are working with the EPA and the Health Department “to make sure the cleanup is done as expeditiously as possible,” said Leonie Campbell, spokeswoman for District of Columbia Public Schools.

“Everyone is surprised and disappointed,” she said. “We want the students to get the education they deserve. We certainly hope the situation will be resolved quickly.”

On Feb. 23, mercury was found in four locations at Cardozo — two on the basement level, where students enter the building, and two more on the first floor.

One week later, six more BB-sized drops of mercury were found on a third-floor stairwell. At least 50 students’ shoes tested positive for mercury that day.

Two students are charged with spilling the mercury on Feb. 23.

Principal Reginald Ballard said he believes the mercury found at the school Wednesday was left over from the Feb. 23 spill, but officials have not determined if other students or suspects are behind the spills on Wednesday and yesterday — or if the later spills are simply residue from the first incident.

“We don’t know where this material came from. Finding that out will be up to the EPA and the [Metropolitan] Police Department. I don’t think there’s anything diabolical going on,” Mr. Etter said.

The spills at Cardozo come about 15 months after a similar incident at Ballou High School in Southeast disrupted classes at that school for weeks.

In November 2003, a 16-year-old boy spread mercury throughout Ballou, closing the school for a month. The District had to spend about $1 million to clean nearby homes because students tracked the mercury into the community.

Across the nation, the number of reported spills in schools is on the rise, according to EPA figures. The agency responded to 12 emergency removals last year, with cleanup costs as high as $200,000 per incident.

In schools, mercury is found in thermometers, electric-light switches and other basic equipment. It is most common in science labs, where mercury-filled instructional tools have been used for decades.

Mercury turns into a problem when it is spilled and becomes airborne vapors, which can be absorbed into the body through breathing.

The EPA has encouraged schools — and is helping — to remove mercury compounds and mercury-containing equipment.

At least nine states have created programs to speed up the removal of mercury from schools through lab cleanups and educational outreach to teachers, the EPA says.

Exposure to high levels of mercury can damage the brain, kidneys and lungs. Prolonged exposure to lower levels can cause problems with sleep, sight, hearing and memory.

No one has been reported suffering mercury poisoning from the spills at Cardozo High School.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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