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Mercury vapors

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W.S. Mount Elementary School above is the only school in the Three Village Central School District affected by mercury vapors. The problem is limited to a mini gymnasium that in the past was used intermittently. Photo by Rita J. Egan

In an Aug. 5 letter to the Three Village Central School District community, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said the district recently commissioned a voluntary investigation of all spaces in the district’s schools. The study consisted of screenings to test for the presence of mercury vapor and bulk sampling of flooring materials to determine the absence or presence of mercury, according to the letter.

The mini gymnasium at W.S. Mount Elementary School was the only space containing the vapor, according to the district, and it is one that was used only intermittently by students and staff members in the past.

While Minnesota is the only state that has established recommendations when it comes to mercury exposures in schools, the New York State Education Department recently sent out a memo stating that certain types of poured rubber flooring used in school buildings between the 1960s and ’90s may eventually break down into mercury vapor. After receiving the memo, the district decided to conduct its voluntary investigation.

Affected flooring is limited to those that were poured using phenylmercuric acetate, also referred to as PMA, as a catalyst during installation. The organomercury compound can break down during time. At room temperature, it can release an odorless, colorless mercury vapor.

Pedisich said in the letter that there were six possible areas found that could possibly be affected, and J.C. Broderick & Associates — a Hauppauge environmental testing agency — evaluated those areas. The mini-gymnasium was the only one confirmed affected after the evaluation.

“Following this, and out of an abundance of caution, additional vapor screening was conducted in spaces surrounding the mini gymnasium,” Pedisich said. “These tests found no detectable mercury vapors beyond the mini gymnasium.”

The space is now isolated from the rest of the building, and work began during the summer with the help of a professional remediation contractor, according to Pedisich. The gym will remain closed for the 2019-20 school year.

“Additionally, the Mount mini gymnasium will continue to remain unavailable to students and staff until there is complete assurance that air levels are well below federal exposure limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Minnesota Department of Health in schools,” Pedisich said.

In May, the Miller Place School District closed its high school gym after mercury vapors were detected within the recreation space.

Issues with mercury vapor have affected several schools in New Jersey, and the New Jersey Education Association has information on its website specifically about this type of flooring. The organization recommends such floors be removed as hazardous waste. Mercury 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.