A small amount of mercury found at a Las Vegas middle school prompted federal officials to detain more than one thousand students for a total of 17 hours until they were able to be screened for exposure to the neurotoxin.
Authorities questioned whether the mercury had been brought into Walter Johnson Junior High School last week by a student. The discovery caused 1,300 students, teachers, and first responders to undergo testing by the US Environmental Protection Agency. No mercury-related illnesses have been reported.
Clark County School District police Capt. Ken Young said it has not yet been decided what sort of punishment or charges will be issued for the guilty party.
A number of parents criticized the lack of information they received, as well as the extreme response that was given to the discovery. Some even argued that they did not want their child to be screened, calling it burdensome. However, officials maintain that it was important to not let anyone leave the campus who could be contaminated, writes Sally Ho for The Seattle Times.
A high level of exposure to the toxin can result in mercury poisoning. Symptoms include muscle weakness, in addition to speech, hearing, and walking impairment.
Parents were notified by automated messages after the mercury had been discovered at noon on Wednesday. They were kept outside of the building to wait for updates on their children, who came out a few at a time as they were screened.
Everyone had been released as of 5 a.m. on Thursday, and classes were cancelled at the school through Friday.
“They have been in there since 8 o’clock this morning. Class was supposed to finish at 3:20 p.m. and now it’s past midnight,” parent LoriBarga said early Thursday. “I’m worried that they will be tired and hungry and stressed.”
While students were kept in their classrooms during the screening process, they were able to make use of the restrooms. They were also given food, water, and juice. Parents were able to work with first responders to give medications to their children as needed.
“They were laughing. They were talking. They were really, really upbeat,” fire department spokesman Tim Szymanski said of students’ morale. “The kids didn’t complain or seem out of it. I was there really, really late and I was really amazed at their attitude.”
Taking about five minutes per person, the screenings were conducted by EPA workers with the help of the fire department. The effort was the largest decontamination response to have been handled by the department.
Students found to be contaminated were cleaned off. This included a variety of tactics, from wiping hands and dipping feet in a tub of chemical soap, to washing their hair and changing their clothing. Those who needed new clothes were outfitted with school-provided physical education uniforms. However, the level of exposure was minimal. It is believed that no one had ingested it, writes Ricardo Torres-Cortez for The Las Vegas Sun.
The substance was initially reported by a teacher, who had witnessed several students playing with it during a school assembly held in the gymnasium. The liquid was confirmed by the fire department to be mercury.
The EPA is still considering how to decontaminate the school. The agency said this could take up to a week. The entire property will be screened, as well as all personal items, which will then be returned to students.