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Boys expose town to 4 lbs. of stolen mercury

/ Source: The Associated Press

A group of boys playing with mercury swiped from a dental office created an environmental headache after tracking it into their school, homes and church and up the steps of the public library.

Five of the 25 students who handled the poisonous substance showed high levels of exposure, but none suffered serious health risk, health officials said Wednesday.

“It was shiny and made interesting patterns when you drop it,” said Dr. Kerry Gateley, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. “From a 10-year-old’s standpoint, that is fascinating stuff.”

The fourth- and fifth-graders took about 4 pounds of mercury, used in some dental fillings, from the vacant and apparently unlocked office early last week, authorities said.

They played with the toxic substance for several days, with one student reportedly trading a pair of sneakers for some, before school officials learned about it Friday, said Clendenin Elementary School Principal Karen Scheer.

Health officials spent the weekend removing contaminated items from the steps of a public library, two classrooms at the school and a gazebo at a public park in the town of 1,400, Gateley said.

About 200 people were expected to be screened for exposure, Gateley said.

Short-term exposure to mercury vapors is not considered dangerous. Long-term exposure can affect the brain and nervous system causing behavioral problems, such as irritability, followed by tremors.

Mayor Bob Ore said the boys walked through an open door at the dentist’s office, which had been put up for sale after the doctor suffered a stroke 18 months earlier.

“Boys will be boys,” Ore said.

He wasn’t sure if any charges would be pursued.