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With help from the MPCA, schools are getting the mercury out now!

Mercury spills in Minnesota schools should be a thing of the past, but mercury is still being found in the science classrooms of middle, junior high and senior high schools. That's a cause for concern because spilled mercury vaporizes just like w...

Mercury spills in Minnesota schools should be a thing of the past, but mercury is still being found in the science classrooms of middle, junior high and senior high schools. That's a cause for concern because spilled mercury vaporizes just like water, and when someone inhales mercury vapor, about 80 percent of it passes from the lungs into the blood.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and prolonged exposure to its vapors can cause damage to the central nervous system. At greatest risk are those whose nervous systems are still developing - students younger than 16 and the fetuses of pregnant teachers and school staff.

Acknowledging the potential health danger that mercury poses, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill last year requiring the state's schools to be mercury free by the end of 2009. The bill bans from schools liquid mercury and mercury-containing chemicals and equipment, except energy-saving fluorescent lights and thermostats for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems.

Following passage of the legislation, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Education launched their "Get the Mercury Out Now!" effort, which provides middle, junior high and senior high schools with a way to dispose of their liquid mercury and mercury-containing equipment and receive a limited amount of mercury-free replacement equipment at no cost. The costs of packaging, pickup and disposal of the mercury and mercury-containing equipment by a licensed hazardous waste contractor and the cost of the replacement equipment is being borne by the MPCA.

The MPCA has long worked to get the mercury out of schools. In 2000, the agency established its Mercury-Free Zone program. As of Feb. 1, Hubbard and Clancy, the MPCA's mercury-detecting dog, had searched 255 of the 731 Minnesota schools that had pledged to become mercury free for mercury spills and leaking mercury-containing equipment. So far, nearly 2,400 pounds of mercury have been removed from participating schools.

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By filling out the chemical and equipment inventory form that is part of the enrollment process for Get the Mercury Out Now!, principals can double-check whether their schools contain liquid mercury or mercury-containing equipment.

Schools can enroll in Get the Mercury Out Now! until Oct. 1 or until funds budgeted for the effort are exhausted. Principals can find out more about the program by going to www.pca.state.mn.us/assistance/schools/index.html#mercury . Principals who have questions are encouraged to phone Carol Hubbard at 651-282-2604 or e-mail her at carol.hubbard@pca.state.mn.us .

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