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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 4, January/February 2006

Mercury poisoning afflicts Cranbrook teachers

by Nancy Knickerbocker

Mercury: Who could forget a child’s fascination with it? In Grade 5, I remember thinking, "Wow! Look how it splits into silver beads and scoots across the desk!" A metal that was paradoxically liquid, mercury seemed mysterious, seductive, poetic. It was so beautiful, who would have thought it was harmful?

Think again. Elemental mercury, chemical name Hg, is a volatile liquid that gives off a colourless, odourless, toxic vapour at room temperature. According to Health Canada, "Mercury is a global contaminant because it is toxic, does not break down in the environment, and can build up in living things."

But teachers at Mount Baker Secondary School, in Cranbrook, are sounding the alarm about the dangers of mercury and its devastating impact on their health, careers, and lives.

Science teacher Ivan McKnight raced bicycles and ran road races all over Alberta and BC., but mercury poisoning put an end to his days as a competitive athlete. Indeed, it almost ended his life.

It all began in February 2001 when the school custodian brought a box of old science equipment up from the basement to Classroom 208, and asked McKnight if he wanted it. "I told him I didn’t have time to deal with it, but he could put it in the corner."

Neither man knew that inside the box was a large broken barometer, a potent source of toxic mercury vapours. To make matters doubly bad, the classroom lacked adequate ventilation and the box was placed under the window near a heating vent, thus hastening vapourization of the spilled mercury.

Within months McKnight, who had been training for the triathlon, began to feel weak. "I had to sit down all the time." He became alarmed when a healthy student, a lifeguard at the local pool, suddenly fainted in class. "She just fell right off her lab stool." His worry intensified after a male student, another strong athlete, also passed out in his class.

In June 2001, McKnight finally took a look in the box that had been sitting in his room for the past five months. That’s when he saw the broken barometer. "The mercury just gushed out."

Back at school in the fall, biology teacher Russ Reid, a 20-year veteran at MBSS, was also feeling terrible. One afternoon he came into McKnight’s classroom and found him slumped in the chair with his head on the desk. Reid asked: "Do you ever wonder whether that mercury in your room had an effect?"

The two began researching on the internet and soon realized they were exhibiting classic signs of mercury poisoning: profound fatigue, headaches, joint pain, respiratory problems, tremors, weight loss, memory loss, insomnia, and irritability. Even more disturbing, numerous other teachers shared the same problems.

"We were all science teachers at MBSS and we were all sick. Why?" asked colleague Hugh MacPherson. They investigated numerous possibilities and finally decided to undergo testing for mercury, if only to rule it out.

"We fully expected mercury not to be the cause, but we got checked and found we had significant amounts," Reid said.

For home economics teacher Lynne Williams, the first shock came when her doctor told her she had lost 10% of her bone mass in the past two years. A healthy, active person who regularly worked out, Williams was also suffering exhaustion, headaches painful, stiff joints, and memory loss.

"Added together, all these symptoms were very worrisome," she said. A colleague encouraged her to be tested for mercury, but she was not prepared for the results.

Anything above level 3 is considered elevated, according to the scientific measurement for heavy metals such as mercury. McKnight’s extremely elevated level of 30 was by far the highest among the group, until Lynn’s results came back. Hers was a shocking 62.

"At first it was just a number to me. During the school week I was too busy to worry, but I had a couple of very rough weekends," Williams says. "No one knows the long-term health implications. You’re doing a lot of thinking about how your life is going to change a lot."

How could this have happened?

Williams and other teachers believe that the school’s erratic and dysfunctional ventilation system is partly to blame. While the delicious aromas from her home economics kitchen sometimes wafted up to the science wing, more often the noxious scent of chemicals blew down the other way.

By contrast to McKnight’s classroom, which had very poor air circulation, Williams had a persistent draft blowing through that even rustled the papers on her desk. "I’m sure that’s where the contamination came from," she states.

All this from one broken barometer? No, not at all. The teachers found out about other mercury spills in the school, going back as far as 1955. "So we’re looking at low-dose exposure over a long period of time," said Reid. "It builds up in your system. Once it’s into the brain tissue, you’re looking at about 30 years to get it out."

According to Environment Canada, about 80% of elemental mercury is absorbed when inhaled. "The critical target organ for elemental mercury is the adult and fetal brain."

The treatment for mercury poisoning is chelation therapy, which involves injections of chemicals that bond with heavy metals and draw them out of the body. The procedure is taxing on the kidneys and liver, and draining to the whole system. Some people can only take one treatment a month, others go every two weeks. McKnight endures daily treatments for weeks at a time.

Unfortunately no doctors offer chelation therapy in Cranbrook, so the teachers must travel to Kelowna or Calgary for treatment. In addition, because it’s deemed an "alternative therapy," chelation is not covered by medical plans. The teachers are paying thousands of dollars out of pocket.

The cost of chelation is only one aspect of the issue facing Cranbrook District Teachers’ Association President Chris Johns. A tenacious advocate, Johns has been indefatigable in urging the Southeast Kootenay School District to reimburse the treatment costs.

His pleas have fallen on deaf ears so far, but BCTF President Jinny Sims has also written to Education Minister Shirley Bond, urging her to provide a grant to the district to cover the cost of testing and treatment. "We want to do our utmost to help the members suffering from this occupational health disaster," Sims said.

To date, 12 current and former teachers at Mount Baker Secondary have tested with high levels of mercury in their bodies. Five are on full sick leave. More than 30 other teachers have indicated they wish to be tested and about 60 have initiated claims with the Workers’ Compensation Board.

Johns and the CDTA urged the board to immediately conduct proper indoor air testing and cleanup of the school to ensure the health and safety of all students and staff. However, they met so many obstacles and needless delays they have filed a grievance claiming the employer failed to provide a hazard free workplace.

In the summer of 2005, the board hired an environmental firm to rid the science labs of asbestos. In the process they also removed mercury from the sinks and ventilation vents. The subsequent report declared all to be well, but the science teachers are skeptical, saying employees did not have adequate training or proper techniques to deal with a toxin as elusive as mercury.

In December the same firm conducted tests for mercury vapour at seven schools in the district. "We express no concern with regard to exposure to mercury vapour levels within Mount Baker Secondary School," the firm concluded, even though some readings in McKnight’s old classroom were more than four times higher than the level accepted by the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The mercury vapour levels found in science lab sinks in other schools were 20 times higher, and the firm recommends that remedial work be done.

All of the teachers interviewed want to see prompt responses from the board and health officials.

"I feel anger at the lack of action, anger that we’ve been poisoned at work and no one will accept responsibility," says MacPherson.

"It’s been a five-year process already. Everyone is playing politics while our lives are being shattered," McKnight said.

Murray Quinn, a retired chemistry teacher with 22 years experience at Mount Baker blamed the inaction on a lack of knowledge about the risks of mercury exposure.

"Look, I was that way too, and I’m a chemistry guy," he said. "We are not sure things are okay at MBSS. I’d love to see the board hire totally professional independent experienced people who will do real tests and get real results everybody can live with. Then we will have the information required to take appropriate action."

The teachers are also worried that parents and community members are getting an all-too-rosy picture of Mount Baker Secondary School as a healthy learning environment.

"I get calls from parents saying they were so relieved to hear that the school is clean and safe," McKnight said. "Parents are saying how glad they are I’m feeling better, but where are they getting that from?"

Local president Johns is distressed that the chairperson of the Parent Advisory Committee refused to let him make a presentation to parents on teachers’ experience and concerns about mercury exposure at MBSS. His request to send a letter home to parents was also denied by the PAC chair.

"The current debate is whether it’s a safe school," Williams said. MacPherson agrees, saying he often wonders whether the building may have to be demolished.

Above all, they called for the school board to be partners with them in solving the occupational health mystery at MBSS.

"It’s bad for people to take sides in this," Williams said. "There’s the truth and there’s the smokescreen. We need to work together to find the truth."

The CDTA, the school district, and other stakeholders are planning to hold a public forum in January in Cranbrook on the issue.

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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