EPA recovers quarter-cup of mercury from Las Vegas school as cleanup continues

An Environmental Protection Agency official said Sunday that upward of a quarter-cup of mercury has been recovered from Johnson Junior High School and that 60 homes in the community have been evaluated, with one family being temporarily relocated.

“A quarter-cup of mercury is a significant amount,” said Randy Nattis, an EPA on-site coordinator. “It’s more than a thermometer.”

The family has been relocated after a recommendation was made from the EPA in conjunction with the Southern Nevada Health District because of the levels of mercury found in the home. Officials didn’t say where the family lived, how big the family is or how many family members might have been exposed.

Nattis said he cannot speak to the health of the individual residents.

Nattis also reported that 80 families have brought bags of clothes and shoes to the school, with 16 of them needing to be re-tested. Also, based on some of the bags that were confiscated, Nattis said the EPA still has a few homes to evaluate.

“Our main focus is to make sure that none of the mercury that is here (at the school) got back to any of the households and may be causing some health effects in the households,” Nattis said.

Kristina Langendorf, 41, of Las Vegas, went to the school Sunday with her son Josh, a seventh-grader, to pick up his school supplies. They walked away without his bag.

Their home was also one of the 60 that have been evaluated.

“It was unnerving, because you didn’t know what they were going to find, what they were going to do,” Langendorf said.

EPA officials told her that they found higher levels of mercury in her washing machine, which could have been a result of the clothes her son was wearing. She was advised to run the hot cycle through the machine a few times because, she was told, the heat would disperse the mercury.

The EPA investigators were in her home for about 15 minutes, and once they left, she called poison control for added peace of mind.

“No one is supplying us with much information,” Langendorf said. “They don’t know when it was, how much it was.”

Since the news of the contamination and subsequent school lockdown broke, information from officials involved in the investigation has been slight and sometimes conflicting.

Nattis said Thursday night he was unsure of the amount that was brought into the school, while a Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman said his crews saw about five to 10 droplets of mercury.

The Clark County School District announced Sunday that classes at the school will be canceled Monday, only two days after Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said he was “confident” students would be back by that time.

“They’re not giving us a timeline of how long,” Langendorf said. “I’d like at least an estimation — I know they don’t know exactly. It’s like everything we’re getting is from the news — it’s not from the district, other than phone messages saying, ‘School has been canceled,’ or ‘Come pick up your belongings.’”

Langendorf said she won’t feel completely comfortable sending her son back to school without more concrete information from the district, such as, who, what, where, when and why?

Other parents expressed similar sentiments.

“As far as the cleaning goes, there’s an uncertainty,” said Robert Quizon, 51, of Las Vegas, who has one child attending the school. “Who’s going to tell us that it’s 100 percent taken care of? We want to know the root cause and what led to that and what guarantee we have that it won’t happen again.”

The EPA is still working to clean and clear the school after mercury was discovered in the school’s gymnasium on Wednesday.

On Sunday, Vern Brooks, 41, of Las Vegas, who has two children attending the school, said, “Communication would have changed everything. I’ve done my best to not be part of the angry mob, but I understand why it exists.”

A Thursday town hall meeting planned as a forum for parents to ask questions of district, police and EPA officials, devolved into a free-for-all. Upset parents expressed their frustration over a lack of answers, often shouting their queries.

Nattis said the mercury levels “aren’t where they need to be quite yet” and that they’re working on trying to get them lowered.

He said mercury is an inhalation hazard as it evaporates.

“So if there is still mercury available to vaporize into the air, especially in closed rooms where students will be working or exercising in the gym, we’d like to avoid that,” Nattis said. “Where we can remove mercury vapors from the atmosphere so kids can go back to school safely — that’s the job here.”

Mike Barton, the school district’s chief student achievement officer, agreed that safety is a “top priority.” Cleanup efforts are being concentrated on the gym, Barton said, and parents will be notified Monday whether students will be allowed to return to the school Tuesday.

In the meantime, Barton said the district is considering makeup days on Nov. 8 — Election Day — and in the week before Thanksgiving.

“We care about our students, we care about their families,” Barton said. “We want to make sure it’s 100 percent ready.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Max Michor contributed to this story. Contact Natalie Bruzda at nbruzda@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3897. Follow @NatalieBruzda on Twitter.

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