School district detects mercury vapors in high school gym

School district detects mercury vapors in high school gym

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Miller Place High School. File photo by Kevin Redding

The Miller Place School District has closed its high school gym after mercury vapors were detected within the recreation space.

A letter sent home to parents dated April 28 stated the district was made aware of a possible situation regarding the original synthetic flooring used in the gym when the school was built back in the 1970s, which had also been covered over with wood flooring in the late 1990s. The synthetic flooring, made several decades ago, contained a mercury catalyst that breaks down over time.

The district conducted the testing April 25 in the gymnasium and adjacent rooms, including under the stage in the auditorium, in the girls and boys locker rooms, the weight room, the corridor from the boys locker room to the cafeteria and ambient levels outside the school. That testing revealed recordable levels of mercury vapor in the gym, girls locker room and under the stage in the auditorium. Since there are no federal or New York State standards for mercury vapor levels, the district said it used Minnesota State guidelines instead. 

The district, along with environmental consultants, sectioned off the gym interior and retested the areas Friday, April 26 into the following evening. The letter stated all other areas except the gym were cleared of air monitoring and testing for mercury vapor.

It is unsure how long the mercury vapors have been present within the high school.

“The health and safety of our students, faculty and all who visit our schools remains our top priority,” Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said in the letter. “As we move forward with this process, we will keep the community informed accordingly.”

A representative of the school district was not available to comment on how long the vapor could have been in the gym, how the district was initially alerted to the vapor, or how much it is expected to cost to remove the flooring from the gym.

This issue with this particular type of synthetic flooring has been seen in schools across the nation. Other school districts have reported spending several million to remove the floors.

“The health and safety of our students, faculty and all who visit our schools remains our top priority.”

— Marianne Cartisano

The State of New Jersey has recently had to deal with this mercury vapor situation in several of its schools. The New Jersey Education Association has released information on its website specifically about this type of flooring, and said such floors had to be removed as hazardous waste.

The New Jersey organization said the polyurethane floors use 1,000 to 2,000 parts per million of phenylmercuric acetate catalyst, which breaks down over time into a colorless, odorless mercury vapor. The floor could release this vapor indefinitely.

This vapor may do damage to lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes, though it depends on how much and how frequently people are exposed to the gas. It’s expected that physical education teachers, coaches, certain sports teams and maintenance staff would be the most frequently exposed.

Minnesota Department of Health guidelines regarding mercury flooring testing and mitigation state that a floor containing 20 parts per million of mercury may lead to health concerns. The guidelines also state that the public should not be exposed to air concentrations above 1,800 milligrams per cubic meter. For longer exposures, gym teachers should not be exposed to more than 750 milligrams per cubic meter in a 40-hour workweek. The guidelines instruct that good ventilation is an effective way to reduce mercury vapor concentrations inside the location, though of course the only way to reduce the vapor entirely is to remove the flooring.

The letter sent to parents states all activities that normally happen in the gym will be relocated to other areas. Activities that normally happen in the auditorium will continue to take place within that room, and events, such as concerts or drama productions, will not need to be rescheduled.