As a Medical Toxicologist and the father of an adult daughter who te aches 7-12 Science, I'll add my 2 cents worth.
The amount of Hg wasn't specified (I assume it was metallic [liquid] Hg), but doesn't seem to have been large. The risk of health effects fr om an acute exposure to this is minimal, if it is not heated or ot herwise formed into Mercury Vapor, which can and does have very se vere eye and respiratory tract effects and can be fatal (we could dicsuss a South American mine and other mercury vapor exposure issues at another tim e). You could even drink it and if it doesn't accumulate in the ver iform appendix or get caught in the genetic defect called a Meckle's divert iculum, it would likely just pass through (NOT that this is a good idea). One of the worst ones I got involved with was South American boxer s injecting it subcutaneously into their hands so that they could punch har der. VERY BAD idea. Or the psychotic folks who decid ed to inject it IV (and then if they had a open foramen ovale or foramen se condus in the heart, it gets into the entire circulatory system including the lungs). AN EVEN MORE BAD idea. This is extremely unlik ely in a "brought-to-school" liquid/metallic mercury incident. Natu rally, once we start talking about organic or inorganic mercury co mpounds, all bets are off.
In these "brought-to-school" exposures, the likelihood of c hronic exposure is minimal as they are so frequent that nearly if not all R egional Poison Centers and State, County, and Local Health/Envir onmental Departments have standard reponse and clean-up protocols.&n bsp; Many involve the use of relatively innocous sulfur compounds to comp lex the elemental mercury and I would suspect that nearly all would strongl y advise against using a vacuum cleaner which just spreads the mercury cont amination. This does sometimes happen as the custodial staff are us ed to hoovering things up.
On the "real risk" doesn't equal "perceived risk" side of the equati on, the school officials may have over-reacted, but they actually did n othing wrong (what student will complain about a day or two off from school ?). If you believe that life should be without risk (real in terms of health or legal in terms of litigation), always err on the side of cau tion (even when it is not the side of reason/science). Science is i n the end, just another way of looking at the Universe and trying to make sense of it. Science is the one way that has always appeale d to me (but: first there was nothing, which exploded?), and I would agree that the school closure etc. was a great deal of overkill for a risk that was most likely minimal. Who amongst us who has acheived the 6th decade of life didn't have a chance to play with small amounts of metallic (liquid) mercury as a child? And yet many of us have achie ved advanced degrees, academic appointments, and gone on to wort hwhile careers ("if you can't be smart, be lucky comes to mind").& nbsp; It doesn't mean that this was smart or that we should have done it. But for many of us, it did happen.
So let's all please don't fault anyone who keeps us abreast of the developm ents in our world on the D-CHAS listserve.
There's a lot more to our respective professions that just knowing chemical toxicity and how to prevent or treat it.
Alan H. Hall, M.D.
Colorado School of Public Health
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