Over the past few weeks, the District has gotten a remedial education in mercury contamination. In a repeat of Ballou High School’s fall 2003 spill, Cardozo High School emptied out two weeks ago for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleanup of the toxic liquid metal. Despite the arrests of three juvenile suspects, Cardozo has closed its doors twice since, either because the EPA missed spots or because copycats are now at work. The grandmother of one of the suspects dismissed the episode as an unfortunate prank, but perhaps she was just being modest.
Forget the bygone days of pulling the fire alarm or flushing M-80s left over from the Fourth. D.C. students appear to have stumbled across the Rolls Royce of schoolyard vandalism—a substance that, liberally distributed, can keep students from regularly attending class for weeks, dominate the Washington Post’s Metro coverage, and launch a several-hundred-thousand-dollar government cleanup operation conducted by people in hazmat suits.
The students arrested in the Cardozo spill have been charged with everything from dumping hazardous material to cruelty to children. It’s possible that they actually were knowledgeable young chemists trying to slowly poison themselves and their classmates, but in the post-spill panic, a far more likely option has been overlooked: Even if the kids did have some idea that mercury was unhealthy, the stuff was just too much damn fun to leave alone. Look no further than Hardy Middle School, which was closed on Tuesday for mercury contamination after students playing with a thermometer broke it.
“Mercury is such a giggle you can’t believe it,” says Neal Langerman, the former chair of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Division of Health and Safety and a consultant on chemical spills. While he likens playing with quicksilver to “playing with a sharp knife,” he also recalls fooling around with it himself as a child in the ’50s, long before “schools realized they needed to have less hazardous demonstrations for their kids.” In those frontier days of schoolhouse chemistry, mercury “certainly had an educational value.” When the element was phased out of most science curricula in the ’80s and ’90s, a host of beloved science projects had to adapt or die with it: Mercury was integral in making makeshift barometers for lessons on atmospheric pressure, and its extremely high density and normally liquid state made it a great quirky example of physical properties.
Though contemporary chemistry teachers can find ways to compensate for mercury-free curricula, its quasi-educational features are irreplaceable. Mercury readily forms an alloy with other metals, so “if you play with mercury and get even a tiny speck on your wedding band, the next morning you’ll have a silver wedding band,” Langerman says. “You can play Mr. Wizard and turn gold to silver.” And in what may be the element’s most adorable quality, “if you spill it, it splatters everywhere.” Little blobs slide effortlessly around the room, and unlike water droplets, they bounce. “Kids love that,” says Langerman. “It’s a shame it’s toxic, because it’s a great toy.”
Mercury is the sort of thing that kids share with one another—most spills that Langerman has dealt with occur when one child holds an informal science show-and-tell for his friends. “I see it three, four, five times a year,” Langerman says. “Kids bring it into school, bring it into McDonald’s.” Despite a personal affection for the silvery fluid, Langerman’s professional opinion is that the risk of tainted Happy Meals ultimately outweighs Element No. 80’s charms. “If you have a mercury spill in a nice, tight bedroom where you put your kid to sleep,” he says, “in two weeks you will actually see neurological deficits in that kid.”
But some respected chemistry organizations still stand up for the odorless, toxic substance’s role in the classroom. “I find myself on the trailing edge of this one,” said Lab Safety Institute President Jim Kaufman, who is also a former chair of the ACS’s chemical-safety division. “But our organization has taken the position that the educational benefits can far outweigh the risks.”
Although Kaufman doesn’t wish to return to “the good old days,” a time when he recalls rolling blobs of mercury around in the palm of his hand, he thinks that mercury may be a casualty of a drive to defang science labs that has gone too far. After all, he notes, “if we got rid of everything that could hurt us, we wouldn’t have cars.”
Kaufman suggests science teachers educate themselves and their students about proper handling of mercury rather than axing it from the periodic table, but even he concedes that mercury can sometimes bring out a delinquent streak in kids. Under the title Learning by Accident, his institute has compiled and published 5,000 accounts of lab disasters, more than a dozen of which prominently feature misadventures with mercury. One teacher’s account, chosen at random, begins “On a weather unit demonstrating a barometer, one student ran up, grabbed the mercury, my purse, and took off.”
Even if the attraction of rogue chemistry is universal, however, that doesn’t explain why D.C.’s been hit with two major spills in two years. The Post’s Courtland Milloy suggested in his Sunday column that the spate of mercury spills might be a spontaneous student revolt against D.C.’s toxic public-education system, but the EPA insists that a few high-profile spills don’t mean a pattern. When asked directly whether D.C. students might be especially prone to mercury vandalism, EPA spokesperson Dale Kemery ducked the question: “I sure wouldn’t want to get into that one.”
D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham stated last week, “The $64 million question is, Where did the mercury come from?” But the question is actually worth a good deal less than that: Whether the perpetrators of the Cardozo spills came across the raw materials through Cardozo’s negligence or on their own initiative isn’t really the point. Buying and possessing mercury is entirely legal—and affordable. For the District’s more affluent residents or those who want to pool their money, $860 at an online chemical-supply company will buy a full kilo of 99.999 percent pure mercury—15 times the quantity that brought Cardozo to its knees.
For those on a student’s budget, an old-fashioned thermometer—like the one accidentally broken at Hardy Middle School—would do the trick. And for those willing to do a bit of inquiring, it might be worth trying some of the District’s botanicas. Mercury, known as azogue in Spanish, is reputed to have magic powers in by some practitioners of Voodoo, Santeria, and Espiritismo. Just a few drops of the stuff burned in a candle or sprinkled around your car can bring fortune and luck in love, in addition to eventual tremors, ulcers, gingivitis, and brain damage. The Washington City Paper was unable to locate a District shop that sells azogue, though it did make contact with Erick Cano, an employee of Botanica Grand Poder in Hyattsville, Md., who says his shop sold mercury products until last year.
According to several botanicas, the mercury trade slackened in D.C.’s metro area as the Caribbean community became aware of the dangers azogue posed. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for D.C. public schools: Even though Kemery says the EPA’s position on mercury in science classrooms is “Get it out,” he notes that his agency also advocates educating children about its dangers.
Given that officially banning mercury from school labs hasn’t solved the District’s problem, perhaps D.C.’s young scientists would be best served by a controlled reintroduction of mercury to the classroom. How better to prove Kemery’s point that “there’s nothing cool about mercury” than to make kids study it? CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Tom Deja.