Summer classes were canceled for the day and 100 students, faculty, staff and maintenance personnel were quarantined at Minnesota State University in Moorhead after a mercury spill was discovered about 7:00 a.m. Tuesday.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Associated Press, no one was injured but every precaution is being taken to ensure that no one was exposed to harmful levels of mercury and that the spill is safely cleaned up.
The AP reports that university spokesman Doug Hamilton said the spill occurred when a custodian was wheeling a cart carrying liquid mercury. It happened about an hour before classes were to begin and consisted of three quarter-sized drops, reports the Tribune. Before Bridges Hall, where the spill occurred, could be closed off, 30 maintenance workers, as well as 70 students and faculty arrived and had to be quarantined.
Although the spill occurred in Bridges Hall, two adjoining halls that share the same ventilation system and the campus maintenance building were also closed.
The Tribune reports that a crew from the Twin Cities was summoned to clean up the spill. But because of the approximately 5-hour drive time involved, classes are unlikely to resume until Wednesday. Those unfortunate enough to have arrived at Bridge Hall before it was closed off were required to wait for health officials to evaluate them before they could be on their way. According to the Tribune, Hamilton said those in quarantine were “trying to entertain themselves. We take it seriously and we followed procedures.”
How the spill actually occurred and why more safety precautions were not in place are under investigation. If the mercury was stored in improperly sealed containers, it is possible others may have been exposed without their knowledge prior to the spill.
Exposure to high levels of mercury from a large spill can have permanent effects on the brain and nervous system. According to the Illinois Department of Health, the amount of mercury from a typical broken thermometer would be considered a small spill. If more mercury than this is spilled, such as the amount spilled Tuesday at the university in Moorhead, it would be considered a large spill.
In cases of large spills like this one, exposure would most likely be from breathing the vapors or having direct skin contact. Mercury vapors are readily absorbed by the lungs, but can also enter the body through the skin, especially if it contacts a cut or wound.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, 100 quarantined after mercury spill at Moorhead; http://www.startribune.com/462/story/1255218.html
Associated Press, Mercury spill forces evacuation at MSUM; http://www.in-forum.com/articles/index.cfm?id=169298§ion=news&freebie_check&CFID=39589689&CFTOKEN=11149826&jsessionid=883070eb0bba672e2f34