HGH EMS Rescue Leads Decon Efforts at Junior High School

Haz-mat crews, led by HGH EMS Rescue, are continuing decontamination efforts at the Winnemucca Junior High School after officials there discovered a student brought mercury to school today.

Principal Janet Kennedy said she was alerted to the mercury just prior to 11 a.m. Thursday, February 19. Law enforcement crews arrived minutes later to oversee evacuation efforts, while haz-mat crews began decontamination efforts. They were assisted by members of both the city and rural fire departments.

The school has 498 seventh- and eighth-grade students, although Kennedy could not say how many students were in attendance today.

In all, it appears that 10 students and four adults were directly exposed to the mercury; according to HGH EMS Rescue Medical Director Charles Stringham, M.D., one student may have actually ingested the metal.

Additionally, the mercury was spilled on the floor at the junior high school and was tracked by students throughout the school.

To complicate matters, officials later learned that the mercury had also been transported on Bus 99 this morning. That bus not only carried WJHS students, but students from Lowry High School, French Ford Middle School and Winnemucca Grammar School, requiring school officials to activate a "shelter in place" drill while students there were screened.

That drill was cleared before school was dismissed for the day at Lowry, French Ford and Winnemucca Grammar.

However, students at the Winnemucca Junior High School will remain at the school until their shoes are collected and their feet are cleaned by haz-mat technicians. HGH EMS Deputy Chief Jason Manley said that process could take several hours.

Additionally, the district has announced that school will be cancelled at all schools on Friday, February 20, so that professional crews may begin cleanup efforts.

The school district initially sent home a computerized call alerting parents to the spill just after 1 p.m., and asked them to pick up their junior high students through the office.

Some students were released to parents at that time. However, as officials began interfacing with local and Environmental Protection Agency representatives, they decided to evacuate the remaining students to the junior high's football field and began the individual decontamination process.

Kennedy said school officials have been contacting the parents of students who were released prior to the evacuation, asking them to return to the school to undergo the decontamination screening.

The 10 students and four adults who were directly exposed to the metal underwent a full decontamination process in haz-mat tents at the school before being transported to Humboldt General Hospital where some may remain for observation.

According to Dr. Stringham, people who have been exposed to mercury may experience cough and gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. In some instances, mercury exposure may also cause problems with the kidneys.

As to the other 400-plus students who likely had very minimal exposure to the metal, Dr. Stringham said that following proper decontamination procedures, "We are fairly confident they will be OK."

Winnemucca Police Chief Eric Silva said law enforcement will follow up with the mercury-toting student's parents after detectives have developed more information.

For now, Humboldt County School District Assistant Superintendent Dawn Hagness said the district's priority is to "know that everybody is safe and clear."

School district officials will continue to update parents on the situation via their facebook site as well as the district's website.