DURHAM, N.C. — A suspect was arrested Wednesday afternoon in connection with a mercury scare that shut down an elementary school on Wednesday; and at least one child is exhibiting symptoms of mercury exposure, officials said.
Authorities said Carlos Guerra, 21, an air-conditioning technician for Carroll Service Corp. in Garner, passed out mercury to four children at Iglesia de Restauracion, a church on Ramseur Street near downtown Durham last Friday night.
Guerra, authorities said, had stolen the mercury from an unlocked container at TT&E Iron & Metal in Garner, where he had been doing work.
He was charged with misdemeanor larceny and is being held under $2,000 unsecured bond. More charges are possible, pending an investigation, authorities said.
Durham police said students had found a "very small" spill at Oak Grove Elementary School and that a student might have brought the mercury to the campus in a water gun.
At a news conference held earlier Thursday, health officials said the children sprayed the mercury on the hands of other children at the school. Those children, officials said, were being interviewed and were also undergoing testing for possible contamination.
Hazardous materials crews are also decontaminating the church, seven residences -- Guerra's and six children's -- the school and three school buses.
A high level of mercury was found on at least one of the buses, officials said Thursday evening, and at least one child was exhibiting signs of mercury exposure, such as trouble breathing, diarrhea and coughing.
Durham County officials said they believe that around 60 children may have been exposed to mercury, but that number could go up with further testing of students and staff at the school.
The situation has been made more difficult, authorities said, because the four children who were given the mercury, as well as others at the church, are Hispanic and the language barrier has slowed the flow of information.
Classes at the school were canceled on Wednesday, but Durham Public Schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger said classes would resume on Thursday for students who are currently undergoing end-of-grade testing, under the following arrangements:
- Buses will run as normal. School will operate on a regular schedule, from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.
- Kindergarten students will be at Hillandale Elementary School, 2730 Hillandale Road.
- First- through fifth-grade students will be at the Durham Public Schools Staff Development Center, 2107 Hillandale Road.
- Students in grades 3, 4 and 5 will continue taking state tests on Thursday and Friday.
- Parents who transport their children to school should take them to Hillandale Elementary (kindergarten) or to the Staff Development Center (grades 1-5).
Durham officials said that parents of children at the school should call the Joint Information Center at (919) 560-HELP if they have any questions or concerns about mercury.
Federal Health Officials Traveling To Durham
Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are traveling to Durham from Atlanta to assess the situation and provide assistance to local authorities, who searched the school and nearby surrounding areas for traces of mercury.
They must trace the the exposure from where the children received the mercury to all places that they traveled from there.
"Those homes are being evacuated. Those individuals are being decontaminated, in terms of their clothing that they wore over the last several days," said Durham County Health Director Brian Letourneau. "(The clothing will) be bagged and tagged and tested. (Those affected are) being relocated to other temporary locations."
Hazardous material crews are focused, first, on finding areas with the highest levels of mercury, and then with cleanup, which involves moving everything that is porous from the school, church, homes -- such as carpeting, chairs and cushions and then heat the room to 80 degrees or more to evaporate mercury.
UNC-Chapel Hill Faces Mercury Scare
State health officials had been concerned that a janitor working at the school might have also been exposed to the mercury and had taken it to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during his overnight shift at Walter Royal Davis Library.
"All I know is that I was working last night, like I normally do ... but they said something about some mercury," Jesse McCrimon told WRAL. "And I don't know nothing about it. I don't remember seeing (anything)."
McCrimon, who lives in Pittsboro and works two full-time jobs at UNC-Chapel Hill and at Durham Public Schools, said he was asked to return to the school with the clothes he was wearing tied in a plastic bag. He said he had no signs of mercury poisoning.
A UNC-Chapel Hill spokeswoman said no traces of mercury were found on employees and patrons inside the library and that the university's Environment, Health and Safety Office, Department of Public Safety and State Emergency Management officials determined that there was no risk to members of the UNC community.
The library, however, was temporarily closed, and patrons inside were not allowed to leave for about two hours. The library reopened shortly before noon.
Mercury Harmful, But Treatable
Mercury is highly toxic in vapor form and slightly toxic in liquid form. Touching, ingesting or inhaling can contaminate a person. The element can cause brain and liver damage and can be very harmful to a developing fetus. Therapy and drugs can effectively treat mercury poisoning.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, different forms of mercury have distinct patterns of adverse health effects, and not everyone is equally susceptible to the effects of the element. Some people may not have symptoms, which include respiratory irritation and burning sensations.
Last October, a Granville County high school was closed for two days after school officials discovered eight to 12 fluid ounces of elemental mercury missing from a classroom.
Police said two students stole the mercury from South Granville High School on Oct. 11 after they became fascinated with the element following an experiment performed by a science teacher. It was later recovered at two students' homes.
Authorities said the hazardous substance was not properly locked in a cabinet, making the mercury accessible to students on at least two occasions. The teacher was suspended with pay.