On September 16, 2013, the North Carolina Division of Public Health was notified of an elemental (metallic and liquid) mercury spill on a school bus. An elementary student boarded the bus with approximately 1 pound (454 g) of elemental mercury contained in a film canister, which the student had taken from an adult relative who had found it in a neighbor's shed. The canister was handled by several students before the contents spilled on the bus floor. Ten passengers aboard the bus were exposed, including eight students and two staff members. Although elemental mercury is not readily absorbed from skin contact or ingestion, it does vaporize at room temperatures and inhalation of the vapor can be harmful. The bus driver promptly notified school officials. Firefighters and a local hazardous materials team directed decontamination procedures (i.e., changing clothes and washing hands and shoes) for the 10 exposed passengers. The bus was immediately taken out of service and sent for disposal because of its age and the cost of decontamination.
Two students and three family members reported acute symptoms on the day of the exposure, including headache, cough, numbness or tingling in hands, and difficulty breathing. The student who brought the mercury aboard the bus and five family members, including two adults, had elevated blood mercury levels, ranging from 134 µg/L to >200 µg/L. A blood mercury concentration of ≥50 µg/L is considered the threshold for symptoms of toxicity after an acute high level exposure (2). Two children who had symptoms and blood mercury levels >200 µg/L received a 19-day course of dimercaptosuccinic acid chelation therapy (2). Two other children with elevated blood mercury levels but no symptoms were followed every 2 weeks with urine testing until levels normalized. The two adults were referred to their physician for follow-up.
Through this investigation, six persons with blood mercury levels exceeding human health risk thresholds were identified. Two of these persons required chelation therapy.
CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report