Montgomery County students screened for Mercury exposure after boy brings vial on bus

SILVER SPRING, Md. (WJLA) - A Montgomery County school bus had to be evacuated, and an entire school screened after a boy brought a vial of Mercury to class, and opened it to show his peers.

Staff at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Silver Spring sealed off building doors and windows around 9 a.m. Wednesday. Hazmat teams from Montgomery County, the state of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology assembled nine Mercury scanning devices. Together the agencies tested 720 students for traces of the hazardous chemical. The process was terribly tedious; each individual test took two-to-three minutes to complete.

"About 35 students had some level of exposure, it was mostly on their shoes," Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said. "So we took their clothes and gave them new clothes to wear."

Although school officials would not say if the Mercury ever spilled on the school bus or inside the school, they did confirm multiple students had "handled" the toxic chemical.

"How did this kid get his hands on Mercury?" a former MCPS employee who did want to be identified asked. "That's what I want to know."

According to the Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Mercury generally breaks into tiny silvery metallic droplets when spilled. Those droplets spread easily, evaporating into the air, undetectable by human eyes and nostrils. If inhaled, Mercury, or Hg as it's identified on the periodic table, can be toxic to a person's nervous system, lungs and kidneys.

As news of the leak percolated through the community, a throng of parents and guardians stood outside the school in the pouring rain waiting.

"I heard 'Mercury' and I just couldn't believe it," parent John Barker said. "I just want to make sure my son is okay."

Shortly after 3 p.m., the school's front doors opened, and sixth, seventh and eighth-graders started trickling out.

"I was scared, I didn't know what was happening," student Hugo Cisteneda remarked.

"They gave you these paper bags, and then put this thing in your shoes to check if you were infected or not," student Aaron Mellendez said. "I was perfect."

"We had to wear these things called booties so they could scan our shoes to see how much Mercury there was," student Chelsea Olivar said. "Today was just crazy."

MCPS, which is not identifying the student, has launched an investigation into the incident. Disciplinary action such as suspension or expulsion is possible.

"Mercury is not something that should be handled. People should not be bringing these items to school," Tofig said. "You see what happens, there can be major disruption."

MCPS is planning a meeting with school, health department and emergency officials to answer parent and student questions. The meeting will be held sometime in early May.

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