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Lost list?
About 100 students, staff at Cardozo
await payment for confiscated clothing

(Published March 21, 2005)

By STEPHANIE BRINSON
Staff Writer

Nearly a month after mercury was first discovered at Cardozo Senior High School, city officials appear unsure of how almost 100 people will be reimbursed for personal property they lost due to contamination.

D.C. Fire Department spokesman Allen Etter said 96 individuals, the majority of whom are students, had to give up shoes and other clothing items when they were found to contain unsafe levels of mercury after the potentially toxic metal was found throughout the Northwest Washington school.

Droplets of elemental mercury were discovered in the school on Feb. 23. After five days of cleaning, the substance was found again on March 2 and a third time on March 6. Students were expected to resume classes at the school March 21, after traveling to the University of the District of Columbia to attend classes during the past two weeks.

A D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) spokesman said school officials are "fine tuning" a reimbursement plan that will be similar to one they used for a mercury spill at Ballou Senior High School in 2003.

The shoes and clothing were confiscated by the D.C. Department of Health and the fire department to minimize the spreading of the metal to other areas, such as homes, where it could "potentially" pose health problems if the levels were high enough, said Marcos Aquino, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator for the Cardozo cleanup.

During the Ballou incident, confiscated belongings were put in bags that were photographed and tagged with the owner's name, said DCPS spokeswoman Roxanne Evans. Individuals then filled out a form on which they estimated the value of their lost property. The form was reviewed by the city's Office of Risk Management before the school system distributed checks for reimbursement.

At Cardozo, contaminated clothing was put in bags and individuals' names and a description of the property they lost were recorded on a list that Etter said was provided, upon request, to the EPA. But Megan Dougherty, an EPA spokeswoman, said the organization never received a list, and school officials said one hasn't been provided to them, either.

DCPS spokeswoman Leonie Campbell said the school system will determine who will receive reimbursement by referring to the bags of contaminated clothing, which have been tagged with individuals' names and stored. But Dougherty said the items have already been placed in drums and shipped to be disposed as hazardous waste.

Kerry Sylvia, a social studies teacher at Cardozo, told The Common Denominator that she figured someone must have tracked mercury into her homeroom from the hallway when her shoes and those of four of her students were confiscated because they were found to contain unsafe levels of mercury.

She said her students were reluctant to give up their footwear, some of which was new, worrying if the shoes were going to be returned or if they were going to be replaced for them.

"Some of the kids were really upset," Sylvia said. She noted that approximately 70 percent of Cardozo students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of financial need.

"I told them, I said ‘Look. I will make sure you get your shoes back.…This is just something that needs to get done.'"

Their shoes were placed in a black garbage bag that was sealed and tagged with their names and classroom number, Sylvia said, and they were told that they may get their shoes back if the footwear can be decontaminated.

But Thomas Calhoun, a medical adviser for the D.C. health department, said he understood that people who lost property may be upset, but the items could not be re-used because they pose a health risk.

"This is an emergency situation," Calhoun said. "It's a health risk for themselves and anyone they may come in contact with."

Etter said the fire department gave individuals who lost their shoes booties made of a "sturdy paper," although Sylvia recalled the booties were more like "socks" made of a thin, papery material that provided little foot protection for walking home. Those who lost pants or shirts were given a one-piece, hooded jumpsuit made of an "opaque material," Etter said.

City officials said they have not received complaint calls from Cardozo parents or students concerning the loss of property.

But Sylvia said concerned parents of the school's large population of Spanish-speaking students called the Latin American Youth Center inquiring about lost items. No one at the center could be reached for comment by press time.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator