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More Children Showing Signs Of Mercury Poisoning

Posted Updated

DURHAM, N.C. — About 10 children have began showing symptoms of acute mercury intoxication, a state health official said Thursday during a news briefing about a contamination scare that shut down Durham's Oak Grove Elementary School on Wednesday.

Health officials also said there was a minimum amount of contamination at the elementary school and that the highest levels were detected inside Iglesia de Restauracion, a church on Ramseur Street near downtown Durham, where authorities believe, Carlos Guerra gave mercury to four children.

The children then took the element home and to school where other children were exposed. Three buses, including one that transports students to Neal Middle School, are also undergoing testing.

Durham County Health Director Brian Letourneau also said that about a dozen homes were in need of environmental assessment. All assessment should be completed by Friday morning, officials said.

Officials with the Durham Public Schools are still unsure how long Oak Grove will remain closed. Classes were canceled on Wednesday, but resumed on Thursday at locations away from the school. Friday classes were scheduled 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 health officials said that concerned individuals should call the Joint Information Center at 919-560-HELP with questions and concerns about the mercury or possible exposure.

According to state officials, Wednesday's incident is the third mercury spill since October, when a small amount of mercury was discovered missing from a Granville County high school.

Guerra Just Made Mistake, Acquaintance Says

Investigators said they believed Guerra, a 21-year-old air-conditioning technician for Carroll Service Corp. in Garner, was unaware of the dangers of mercury when he gave it to four children at the church last Friday. Police said he took the metal because he thought it looked interesting. They said he called it "magic water."

The Durham County Sheriff's Office has decided not to file charges against Guerra. He does face misdemeanor larceny charges in Garner, however, for allegedly stealing five pounds of mercury from his job site, TT&E Iron & Metal.

"He just got it from the job," said Aracely Hernandez, a member of Iglesia de Restauracion, who appeared Thursday at Guerra's court hearing. "He played with it. He (took) it to church and played with the other children. But he didn't know exactly what it (was)."

Hernandez described Guerra as an honest and good person who just made a mistake.

The North Carolina Department of Labor has launched a probe into Guerra's employer as well as TT&E. Investigators said the company removes mercury from old car batteries as part of a recycling process. Normally, the substance is stored in a secure location, authorities said, but had been unsecure when it was taken.

"There should be some things in place to make sure mercury doesn't fall into the hands of someone who doesn't know the hazards," said Kevin Beauregard, assistant director of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Beauregard said the company could be in violation of what is known as the hazard communication standard.

"What we'd be looking at -- was the container labeled? Did they have the training? Did they have the proper equipment," Beauregard said.

The companies could face a state fine of about $7,000 per citation if they are found in violation.


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