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Mercury spill at school larger than 1st reported; school still closed week later

Camras Elementary School, 3000 N. Mango Ave. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Camras Elementary School, 3000 N. Mango Ave. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Seven days after a mercury spill initially deemed “very small” by school district officials, a Belmont Cragin elementary remains shut down at least through the end of the week as city and federal officials continue cleanup efforts that have left many parents on edge.

A day after the March 26 spill at Marvin Camras Elementary, Chicago Public Schools officials called the closure precautionary, due to a small thermometer breaking inside a science lab in the school at 3000 N. Mango Ave.

CPS says they’ve since learned it was actually a barometer that spilled 5 tablespoons of the toxic metal.

“While this is a larger release than our initial estimate, it has not changed the type of response needed to ensure students are safe,” according to a district statement.

“The health and safety of our students and staff is the district’s highest priority, and thankfully no students at Camras have required medical treatment,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said in an email. “CPS is working with its partners at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chicago Department of Public Health to ensure the safety of Camras students and staff, and classes will resume at the school once remediation efforts are complete and the building is cleared for student use by the EPA and Chicago Department of Public Health.”

EPA workers remained at the school through the weekend, and the school was still closed Wednesday.

Ventilation tubes hung out of dozens of its windows in the afternoon sun, with “do not enter” signs affixed to all entrances and a few workers from a private cleaning company milling around three trucks parked outside along Mango Avenue.

Warning signs are taped to an entrance at Camras Elementary on Wednesday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Warning signs are taped to an entrance at Camras Elementary on Wednesday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

“A lot of things aren’t adding up here,” said Maria Martell, whose daughter is a seventh grader at Camras. “How long is this going to go on for?”

Since the closure, Camras students in kindergarten through fifth grade have been walking about a mile to Mary Lyon School, with sixth through eighth graders taking part in “planned academic activities” at Steinmetz College Prep — a plan set to be carried out for a seventh straight school day on Thursday. Friday is already previously scheduled day off.

In a letter to parents on Wednesday, Camras Principal Clariza Dominicci wrote that experts were “in the final stages of ensuring our building is safe for all students and staff.”

A ventilation tube hangs out of a window at Camras Elemntary School on Wednesday. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

A ventilation tube hangs out of a window at Camras Elemntary School on Wednesday. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Emergency crews were called about 20 minutes before dismissal on March 26 after students reported the broken instrument, according to Chicago police, who said paramedics cleared two adults and 17 students at the scene.

EPA workers were called to screen the school and students’ backpacks, clothes and belongings for traces of mercury vapor. Starting the night of the spill, workers visited the homes of at least 14 students known to have been exposed, an agency spokesman said.

“Personal items that were found to have any trace of mercury were removed, and EPA has not needed to perform further remediation in any homes to date,” according to CPS.

But the cleanup drags on, with parents slamming a “lack of communication” from school leaders.

Michelle Cruz said she didn’t hear about the mercury spill until a day after it happened, when her daughter revealed her fourth grade class had been relocated to Mary Lyon.

“I was infuriated,” Cruz said.

Due to a digestive condition, Cruz’s daughter normally receives help from a Camras paraprofessional to use the restroom, but the child was on her own after switching schools, she said.

“What about the rest of the children who have issues? Are they being attended to?”

A Camras teacher who asked not to be named estimated that anywhere from half to three quarters of the school’s 950 students have shown up each day since the closure. Some classes have been forced into hallways and the gymnasium as school populations are crammed together.

“It’s chaotic. There’s so much confusion,” parent Karen Gutierrez said.

Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Chris Geovanis said the district “has shortchanged the school community on the facts.

“This is what mayoral control has produced: a chronic and dangerous lack of transparency, because CPS’ priority is inevitably to downplay problems that might paint [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] in a bad light.”

Mercury poisoning can cause vision loss, motor skills impairment, muscle weakness and memory loss, according to the EPA.

City health officials say short-term exposures to elemental mercury “rarely leads to symptoms or significant health effects,” and it “would be very unlikely for students to develop health effects at this point.”

Prof. Peter Orris, chief of service at UIC’s Great Lakes Center for Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health, said context is key in how serious exposure can be. A person can accidentally swallow mercury from a broken thermometer and end up OK, but inhaling mercury vapor over an extended period will lead to serious neurological damage.

“In general, in a school setting with prompt cleaning, you would not expect to see serious symptoms,” Orris said. “But it’s worth making sure.”