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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Health & safety: Skeletons in the closet

by Mark Keelan

As the school year comes to a close, our thoughts turn toward cleaning up this year’s accumulation of materials and organizing for next year. Have you ever wondered what is hiding in places we seldom look?

Many schools in the province were built a long time ago. Over the years, an amazing array of "things" are collected and forgotten. What dangers lurk in that storage area under the stage or in the closet at the end of the hallway? What mysterious objects are in the science storage room or in the dark corners of the basement?

Staff working in one wing of an elementary school began to notice that a strange smell greeted them when they arrived each morning. A considerable amount of mould was growing in the crawlspace beneath that wing. Further investigation revealed that a hot-water tank had been leaking for some time. Everything stored in the crawlspace was contaminated. The cleanup turned out to be a much bigger job than anyone anticipated.

The school district called in experts to conduct the cleanup. Workers entered the crawlspace and began to haul out old desks and chairs, broken bulletin boards, costumes, Apple IIe computers, tables with broken legs, files, and assorted other junk. By the time everything was removed, three 40-cubic-metre dumpsters had been filled. The cleanup took several days and cost the district thousands of dollars. Worse, because so much junk was in the crawlspace, workers and students were exposed to significantly more mould than they would have had the crawlspace been empty. They reported a variety of respiratory ailments.

Prior to the second semester in a secondary school, a box of discarded science equipment was removed from the basement and left in a classroom. Nobody paid much attention to the box. The custodian regularly bumped it when he mopped the floor. In June, the box was accidentally knocked over, and, to everyone’s surprise, a large quantity of mercury spilled out of a broken barometer. It was clear that the barometer had been broken for a long time. For about four months, everyone who spent time in that classroom had been exposed to mercury vapour.

Three years later, in the same school, another barometer was discovered-stored on its side in a wooden box on the top shelf of a chemical-storage room. Teachers believe it had been there for five or six years. When it was taken down from the shelf, there were pools of mercury in the box.

In the case of the school with the mould contamination, respiratory complaints disappeared when the environment was cleaned. The aftermath of the mercury exposure is not so positive. Two teachers are off work completely, two more are on partial medical leave, and several other people are ill.

Should we be concerned about such exposures? It is true that we are surrounded by many types of mould. Some types are harmless and some are, in fact, beneficial. However, some moulds are extremely toxic and can cause a number of serious health concerns.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. Before health concerns related to it were discovered, mercury was used in many different ways, from teething powder, to disinfectant for cuts, to thermometers. It is now known that mercury vapour causes significant health concerns. A single exposure to elemental mercury vapour can cause acute mercury poisoning. The vapour enters the bloodstream and has a negative effect on the liver and the central nervous system. Fortunately, the half-life for mercury in the blood is estimated to be about three days.

Longer-term exposure to mercury can cause it to accumulate in the bones, in the brain and in the liver, where it causes cirrhosis-like symptoms. The half-life for mercury in the brain is 30 to 40 years. Chronic low-level exposure can cause, among other things, tremors, insomnia, hypertension, gingivitis, and memory loss.

Members constantly complain about the lack of storage space in schools. By insisting on the clean-out of long-forgotten and unneeded junk, members can free up storage space and help to make schools healthier places in which to work and to learn.

Even more important, members should insist on the removal of all devices containing mercury. Some U.S. states have banned the use and storage of mercury in schools. If mercury is found in your school, exercise extreme caution. Strict protocols must be followed for its removal. Assure members who use such things that suitable alternatives to mercury-containing thermometers, barometers, and similar instruments are available.

So, this year while you are packing up your things, try to send some dangerous materials packing.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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