Releases of Hazardous Substances in Schools: Data from the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance System, 1993-1998. (Features)

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Hazardous substances emergency events occurring at schools in the United States have been reported mainly in general investigations of hazardous materials incidents (Burgess, Harter, Kovalchick, Kyes, & Thompson, 2000; Kales, Castro, & Christiani, 1996; Kales, Castro, Christiani, Goldman, & Polyhronopoulos, 1997a). The information about schools and universities contained in those reports has, however, been limited to a few areas of the country and does not include details on the effects of the events (e.g., number of victims, nature of injuries, number of evacuations, and clean-up costs).

The purpose of this report is to analyze school-related events reported during 1993-1998 by 14 states participating in the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system maintained by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and to describe the importance of the problem in terms of its adverse public health effects.

The following two case reports illustrate the nature of the problem:

1. A 14-year-old student, who was allegedly intrigued by an experiment involving mercury in a school classroom, removed the unguarded mercury from the school lab area after the class. The student then shared the substance with several other students who played with it in the school's hallway and classrooms. After school it was taken to a bowling alley put into the holes of bowling balls, and thus spread through the lanes of the alley Later, the mercury was taken home, repackaged, and brought back to school for further amusement. After school officials were notified, approximately 88 people, mostly students, were decontaminated. In addition, the school, one school bus, the bowling alley, and one residence (where 4 ounces of mercury were reportedly recovered) were decontaminated. The school was closed for three days. The residence was condemned for several days, while clean-up crews tried to locate all mercury contamination. Several of the students with mercury exposure were monitored for symptoms at local hosp itals. Contaminated clothing, furniture, and equipment were discarded. The cost of cleanup exceeded $225,000.

2. A student took a bottle of mercury home, played with it, and took it to school the next day. The mercury spilled in the student's book bag, resulting in a release of 8 ounces. Although no injuries were reported, the student had to be decontaminated, and 25 others were evacuated from the classroom. The classroom was subsequently closed for the day (a Friday), during the following weekend, and for most of the following Monday The school bus this student had taken to school was put into isolation and decontaminated. Classes scheduled for the isolated classroom had to be held elsewhere. The total costs of cleanup and teachers' lost work time were estimated at $3,780.


Data were collected from the Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance (HSEES) system, an active state-based surveillance system, initiated by ATSDR in January 1, 1990. This system was. established because there was a lack of information related to the public-health consequences of acute hazardous substances releases (Binder, 1989; Hall, Dhara, Kaye, & Price-Green 1994a). HSEES describes the public-health consequences associated with the release of hazardous substances in terms of distribution and characteristics of the events, substances involved, and victims. The data are collected and maintained in a database, which is analyzed to help identify the risk factors associated with morbidity and mortality and to suggest strategies that may reduce those risks.

Sixteen state health departments currently participate in the HSEES program through a cooperative agreement with ATSDR. From 1993 to 1998, 14 state health departments participated in the program (those of Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin). …