A South Carolina district has discovered potentially hazardous mercury vapor emanating from the gym floors at four of its schools.
The Hilton Head Island Packet reports the Beaufort County school board has been advised by a consultant that there was "no reason for immediate concern or panic" about the emissions.
When the air conditioning is operating in the gyms, the mercury levels are far below the federally accepted standard from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for people who may play and work in the gym.
However, when the air conditioning is turned off, the amounts of mercury vapor in the gyms rise to levels that are significantly more concerning for the health and safety of occupants, according to the agency’s standards.
The affected spaces are the rubber gym floors at Hilton Head School of the Creative Arts, Beaufort Middle School, Robert Smalls Academy and Islands Academy.
Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys or a developing fetus. Effects of mercury on brain function can cause irritability, shyness, tremors and memory problems, according to the agency.
Signs of exposure include coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea, eye irritation, severe tremors and changes in behavior or vision.
Andy Rowland, national manager of industrial hygiene and training for Terracon, the consulting firm hired by the district for air-quality testing, told board members that "there’s no indication any of the data that we’ve seen so far would give me any reason to be anxious (to send my child to these schools), but the truth is that’s a hard things to explain sometimes to the general public."
So, out of “an abundance of caution,” he recommended and the board agreed to add another layer of coating over the rubber flooring.
The board also voted to conduct periodic mercury testing at each of the four schools.
To keep the mercury levels as low as possible in the meantime, the district is lowering the thermostat settings in each gym. If one of the four schools’ air conditioning systems breaks down, the gym will remain closed until the air is running again, the district says.