Local News

High School To Remain Closed Wednesday As Officials Continue Air Quality Tests

Posted October 19, 2005 5:15 a.m. EDT

— School officials announced that South Granville High School would remain closed on Wednesday -- and for the second day in a row -- after eight to 12 ounces of liquid mercury were discovered missing.

Police said a student stole the heavy metal, which was stored inside a locked cabinet in the school, perhaps as many as two weeks ago.

Administrators and health officials said they were not sure if mercury vapors escaped inside the school, so they conducted air quality tests in several dozen classrooms Tuesday.

School officials said Tuesday night that none of the classrooms sampled so far had mercury vapor levels that would "lead to an expectation of negative health effects in students or staff." Exposure to mercury vapor can irritate lungs and airways, causing difficult breathing, burning sensation in the lungs, chills, fevers, headache, and cough.

But 14 classrooms had mercury vapor levels higher than the recommended level by the Environmental Protection Agency, school officials said. As a result, they would clean up those classrooms and then re-evaluate the air quality.

Officials said 21 classrooms have not been tested yet, but the testing should be completed Wednesday.

School administrators found out the substance was missing Friday, but they waited until Monday to question students.

"It required having students to talk to to be able conduct an investigation," Granville County Superintendent Tom Williams said. "There was no other way to do it."

An investigation revealed that a student took the mercury and shared it with other students. Students said as many as 50 people may have handled the liquid.

"They were playing with it like it was Play-Doh, breaking it and dividing it," student Teri Hackady said.

While mercury is still found in many classrooms, several public and private schools have opted not to use the metal.

At Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, school administrators paid to have the hazardous material hauled off campus years ago.

"The kinds of demonstrations with mercury, like surface tension, can be done in other ways that are much safer," teacher Leslie Pressel said. "The dangers really outweigh any educational benefit."

The only other school district in the immediate area to use mercury in the classroom is Orange County.

This year, state legislators also proposed a bill that would encourage local school districts to remove all mercury from the classroom.

The bill passed the House, but it never made it out of the Senate.

Williams said the Granville County school system stores, handles and uses the mercury appropriately. He said safety was the system's top priority.