Northport superintendent says mercury vapor detected outside middle school

Joie Tyrrell for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

Parents whose kids attend Northport Middle School were alerted in an email that mercury vapor has been detected adjacent to a classroom, outside the building, a facility some parents repeatedly have said is not environmentally sound.

District officials said students will not be assigned to three classrooms near where the vapor was detected and that further testing is underway "out of an abundance of caution." 

In the email to parents Monday, Superintendent Robert L. Banzer said the environmental firm hired by the district, PW Grosser Consulting Inc., found elevated levels of mercury "in the leaching pool area OUTSIDE the building." The mercury level was not available Tuesday.

Last month, students in two classrooms were moved due to strange odors, and the district ordered more environmental testing. The sixth- through eighth-grade school has about 660 students, according to the state Department of Education.

The school for years has been the subject of complaints of a stench that nauseates students, teachers and staff, as well as allegations of long-term health problems, ranging from migraines, nosebleeds, sinus and lung infections to general fatigue.

Exposure to mercury vapor can result in memory loss, tremors and respiratory failure, according to state officials. The National Council on Occupational Safety and Health states that outdoors mercury vapors tend to go away quickly, but indoors — particularly with windows closed — mercury vapors will accumulate in the air.

Some parents organized a sickout at the middle school last month. There was a call for an independent investigation of the school, and some parents requested that their children be removed from the building. 

"We are sickened by this discovery, but not surprised," said Denise Schwartz, whose three children graduated from the school. "What we have been saying all along is that building is the perfect storm — a toxic cocktail that children are exposed to. The school is in a very bad location, and it doesn’t help the building has not been well maintained."

The elevated mercury level was found adjacent to classroom G-51, according to the district. Last month, school officials said students in G-51 were moved to another classroom because of “moisture-related odors.” The classroom has been closed since Dec. 10.

The superintendent said in the email that classrooms G-51 and G-52 will remain unoccupied. In addition, the environmental firm also recommended that classroom G-53 be closed to students. The environmental firm conducted tests for mercury vapor in each of the three classrooms Monday night.

Last year, mercury vapor was detected in school district buildings in Amityville, Merrick and Miller Place, emanating from synthetic flooring in some buildings. As a result, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill banning new mercury flooring in schools and setting limits on exposure to the neurotoxin.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre), also prohibited schools from installing additional levels of flooring on top of mercury-emitting surfaces that would conceal the old flooring.

The state set a guidance level of .75 micrograms per cubic meter, which matched the level set by Minnesota schools for long-term exposure. State Education Department officials said staff has been working with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health on implementing the standard.

In addition, the state Education Department this past summer requested schools perform an inventory of the flooring, which was poured from the 1960s to the 1990s. The state wanted to assess how widespread the issue was and provide information to districts across the state. The results have not yet been released.

Kaminsky, who sent a letter in May urging the state Education Department to investigate, said Tuesday that the matter is not "being treated with the urgency it deserves.”

"Here we are in January 2020 and schools still seem no better equipped to detect and grapple with this problem,” he said.