A mercury spill Monday at McKinley High School will keep the school’s front office closed for a few days during the ongoing cleanup.
The spill is one of two mercury spills in the past two weeks in Baton Rouge schools.
The first one occurred July 31 at the Jones Creek Adventist Academy, according to state Department of Environmental Quality staff.
At McKinley High, about 2 ounces of mercury spilled when a barometer broke, said Peter Ricca, manager of the emergency response group at DEQ.
Two ounces may not seem like much, but it’s enough mercury to contaminate a large room, he said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 sent a team to start the cleanup.
Initially expected to take about a week, the cleanup now could be finished in a matter of days, said Bryan Riche, chemical emergency response supervisor with DEQ.
The spill was in the front office area and is completely separate from the classrooms, said Chris Trahan, East Baton Rouge Parish school system spokesman.
With school set to start Wednesday, the cleanup area will be blocked to prevent people from getting too close, he said.
Trahan said Tuesday afternoon the school system planned to send automated messages to parents and guardians, alerting them about the cleanup efforts.
“It’s not going to affect school opening at all,” Trahan said.
The spill a week ago at Jones Creek Adventist Academy involved a flask with a stopper that was opened.
“The kids were left unattended and the flask was left unstoppered,” Ricca said. It’s estimated about 1 ounce of mercury was spilled.
Even though many people grew up playing with elemental mercury in science class, it wasn’t a good idea, Ricca said.
With what is known nowadays about mercury, efforts to make sure it is cleaned up properly are both time-consuming and expensive, Ricca said.
“This material can get into the air and environment,” Ricca said. “This is not a cleanup that is done just by anybody.”
The cleanup involves determining where the mercury went, wrapping tables, chairs and other items in the area in plastic, and then testing them for contamination.
Both schools had carpet on the floors, so a special vacuum had to be brought in, Ricca said, adding that in most cases contaminated carpet must be removed because it’s impossible to eliminate all the mercury. After the carpet is removed, the concrete needs to be cleaned as well, he said.
EPA is handling the cleanup, which in some cases can run to almost $150,000 to $200,000 per episode, Ricca said. That job covered by EPA because it’s considered such an important human health concern, he said.
“It’s not a little thing,” he said, especially in a school setting because mercury impacts children more than it does adults.
According EPA, elemental mercury can cause headaches, changes in nerve responses, tremors and emotional changes and can affect the nervous system and harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system.