The first suggestion that mercury vapor might be in Long Island schools appears to have come April 9, from an environmental consulting firm, according to a letter from Amityville Superintendent Mary T. Kelly to parents.
Hauppauge-based J.C. Broderick & Associates sent an advisory to clients about an "emerging concern" — rubberlike polyurethane flooring manufactured from the 1960s through the 1990s, which contained mercury, according to the letter.
The district had that type of gym floor at Park Avenue Memorial Elementary, which was installed there in 1971.
The air sampling “did reveal detectable concentrations of mercury in the air inside the gymnasium and in the immediate surrounding areas,” according to the letter. But it said, “I am pleased to report that the levels were well below established exposure limits, and it was determined that there was no threat to the students and staff who use the gymnasium daily, based on the standards for mercury vapor.”
Even so, the district has closed the gym while it removes the old flooring and installs the new.
According to environmental reports obtained by Newsday through the Freedom of Information Law, April 11 samples revealed levels at 0.43 micrograms per cubic meter of air in the gymnasium and lower levels in surrounding areas, including the gym coach office at 0.10, and nurse's office at 0.06.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets a limit of 100 micrograms per cubic meter in the workplace, while New York State Public Employee Safety and Health sets a permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter. But, as the engineer's report notes: "As these regulations pertain to adult workers, they are not the most applicable for a school building."
The Minnesota Department of Health recommends a short-term exposure limit of 1.8 micrograms per cubic meter in schools. For longer-term exposure, Minnesota recommends school gym teachers should not be exposed to more than an average of 0.75 micrograms of mercury vapor during a 40-hour workweek averaged over the school year. Minnesota also recommends that children exercising in the gym be limited to an average of 0.75 micrograms exposure for 16 hours or less per week averaged over the school year.
New Jersey also has a limit of 0.8 micrograms per cubic meter, as a standard that would be safe for preschoolers, according to a New Jersey Department of Health fact sheet.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also set a standard of 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter for a constant lifetime exposure. "It may not be the most applicable value for a school space with intermittent occupancy over a limited number of years. However, this value can be useful as part of the assessment process," according to the J.C. Broderick report.
The company didn't return requests for comment.
Following the removal of the synthetic flooring, another round of testing was done April 27. The gymnasium, which had been closed, tested at 2.7 micrograms per cubic meter concentration, higher than Minnesota's recommendation for even short-term exposure.
In a follow-up letter to parents, Kelly said test results found "low concentrations" of mercury vapor, and two layers of plastic sheeting would be put over the gymnasium floor, which would remain isolated.
"The gymnasium will remain unoccupied and isolated while remediation plans for the concrete slab are developed," according to Kelly's letter. Later test results, from May 1 to May 13, found mercury concentrations had dropped to between 0.46 and 0.19.
Miller Place school district officials tested for mercury vapor after a contractor with knowledge of the high school gymnasium floor — which was raised due to an old floor beneath it — contacted the district to discuss the possibility that the floor might be the same type of synthetic floor. The floor had been covered 27 or 28 years ago.
The district arranged for air sampling of the gymnasium and other areas to be done immediately on April 25.
All areas except the gym then cleared monitoring and testing, according to Miller Place Superintendent Marianne F. Cartisano’s first note to parents April 28. The district closed the gym until further testing was conducted.
In a follow-up notice a few days later and dated May 2, Cartisano said the gym would remain closed “with no access to anyone other than the professionals assisting the district with this emergency.” She said the gymnasium continued to undergo “negative air pressure treatment” to keep it cleaner from mercury vapors. Continuous air testing is being conducted in the gymnasium and surrounding areas, she said.
In that note, Cartisano said the district plans to remove the wood floor, along with the covered-up synthetic floor, and replace it with a new wood floor.
The gym’s synthetic floor originally was installed when the building was built in the early 1970s as a junior high school. During the 1990-91 school year, a wood floor was installed over the synthetic floor, as the building was now going to be used as a high school.
According to the May 2 note to parents, the initial readings were about 99 percent below the OSHA ceiling limit standard for workplace safety. “The key factor in the OSHA regulations is a mercury level of ‘50.’ Our readings were below ‘1,’ " Cartisano wrote. “ … Although mercury exists in our natural environment, there is no federal or New York state data regarding student safety in a school setting.”
Miller Place school officials don’t know what the replacement cost will be, but said the floor would be paid for out of emergency reserve funds.
Merrick school officials said in a letter this month that the district had immediately ordered environmental testing after becoming "aware the material in the Cubs Cave flooring at Norman J. Levy Lakeside School may contain components that could emit mercury vapor."
Superintendent Dominick Palma noted he and the Board of Education were uncomfortable with any level of mercury vapor and closed the facility so more rigorous testing could be done. Cubs Cave — a multipurpose room used for physical education, lunch and many other activities — initially was closed May 7. It is not the only gym in the building. Levy Lakeside enrolls about 515 students in grades kindergarten to sixth.
The test results of May 6 and May 7 from locations containing rubberized flooring found maximum observed concentrations of 0.34 micrograms per cubic meter of air at Cubs Cave, 0.18 in the storage room, .014 outside Cubs Cave and 0.15 in the office outside. It was below detectable limits in surrounding bathrooms and closets.
“The district may wish to consider a comprehensive assessment for mercury, develop an in-place management plan for mercury-containing flooring, and or develop a removal and replacement plan,” according to a letter from J.C. Broderick.
Palma said negative air pressure has been introduced to the space by an environmental management company to assure vapors do not enter other areas within the school.
“The results of this expanded testing will allow the district to determine the best course of action for the Cubs Cave as we move forward,” Palma said.
BY THE NUMBERS
- New York workplace standard: 0.50 micrograms/cubic meter
- Minnesota school standard, short-term exposure: 1.8 micrograms/cubic meter
- Minnesota school standard, long-term exposure: 0.75 micrograms/cubic meter
- EPA lifetime exposure standard: 0.3 micrograms/cubic meter
April 11 test at Park Avenue Memorial Elementary, Amityville
- Gym: 0.43 micrograms/cubic meter
- Gym coach office: 0.10 micrograms/cubic meter
- Nurse’s office: 0.06 micrograms/cubic meter
SOURCE: J.C. Broderick & Associates test for Amityville school district