Potentially hazardous mercury vapor emanating from the gym floors of four schools within the Beaufort County School District was discovered this summer, officials announced Friday.
At a Beaufort County Board of Education work session, district officials said that the rubber gym floors at Hilton Head School of the Creative Arts, Beaufort Middle School, Robert Smalls Academy and Islands Academy each tested positive for mercury vapor.
When the air conditioning is operating in the gyms, the mercury levels are far below the federally accepted standard from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for people who may play and work in the gym.
However, when the air is turned off, the amounts of mercury vapor in the gyms rise to levels that are significantly more concerning for the health and safety of occupants, according to the agency’s standards.
Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys or a developing fetus. Effects of mercury on brain function can cause irritability, shyness, tremors and memory problems, according to the agency.
Signs of exposure include coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea, eye irritation, severe tremors and changes in behavior or vision.
Andy Rowland, national manager of industrial hygiene and training for Terracon, the consulting firm hired by the district for air-quality testing, told board members Friday that there was “no reason for immediate concern or panic.”
“There’s no indication any of the data that we’ve seen so far would give me any reason to be anxious (to send my child to these schools), but the truth is that’s a hard things to explain sometimes to the general public,” Rowland said.
So, out of “an abundance of caution,” he recommended putting another layer of coating over the rubber flooring.
After listening to his presentation, the Board of Education took up Rowland’s recommendations and unanimously voted to conduct periodic mercury testing at each of the four schools and cover the gym floors with a new coating.
The board did not establish a specific time frame for covering the floors with a new surface.
To keep the mercury levels as low as possible in the meantime, the district is lowering the temperature in each gym. If one of the four schools’ air conditioning systems breaks down, the gym will remain closed until the air is running again, according to district spokesperson Jim Foster.
The district plans to keep parents in the loop through a recently created website, which will serve as a home base for all the mercury and gym-related information. Parents also should expect to receive updates from the district through phone calls, social media, letters and upcoming meetings that will be hosted at each school so parents can ask any additional questions.
“Our goal is to do this in the most transparent of a way that we possibly can so that everybody knows that whatever we know, they know,” Foster said at Friday’s board meeting.
How was the mercury vapor discovered?
In June, the district began the process of replacing the gym floor at the Hilton Head School of the Creative Arts.
Before demolition work was set to begin, the contractor informed district officials that the type of rubber gym floor in place at the school had raised mercury- and air-quality concerns in other states.
District officials, who had not been aware of the potential mercury, then had the floors tested.
The results came back positive.
Following the testing at the Hilton Head School of the Creative Arts, the district found that Beaufort Middle School, Robert Smalls Academy and Islands Academy had the same type of rubber flooring.
Those three schools, which were tested on Aug. 1 and 2, were all confirmed for the presence of mercury vapor.
The first day, levels were tested when the school’s air conditioning system was running normally.
The second day, the levels were tested twice — once after the air conditioning had been turned off for 12 hours and again a couple hours after the air had been turned on again.
When the air conditioning in each school was running as normal, the mercury vapor levels ranged from 248 to 394 nanograms per cubic meter, according to a report created by the consultant.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry deems that levels below 1,000 nanograms per cubic meter are acceptable for occupancy.
After the air was turned off for an extended period, however, the levels rose to between 1,480 and 2,520 nanograms per cubic meter, according to the report.
The air outside each gym was also tested, but mercury-vapor levels dropped dramatically, according to the district.
How widespread is the problem?
From the 1960s to the 1990s, schools across the country installed synthetic rubber flooring in indoor gyms, field houses, running tracks and various other athletic facilities.
This type of flooring contains a mercury catalyst that slowly releases mercury vapor — particularly from damaged areas — over time, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Throughout the past two decades, state health departments in Ohio, Michigan, Oregon and Arizona have performed investigations into the concentration of mercury in school gyms. In most cases, the investigations have found that the mercury vapor did not reach levels high enough to cause health concerns for people using the gym.
In 2015, mercury discovered in the gym floor of an Arizona school sparked concerns from parents and prompted the state’s School Facilities Board to survey all 220 school districts across the state. The survey found 176 potential rubber floors of concern at 73 — roughly a third — of Arizona’s school districts.
As a next step, Arizona is working to test each of those 176 floors.
In Beaufort County’s case, when district officials were alerted to the issue, they had no agency in the state to turn to.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control maintains no regulatory authority over indoor air quality. And the South Carolina Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities had not been made aware of any mercury issues with gym floors previously, according to Foster.
After comparing the levels at the Beaufort County schools to data and reports from schools in other states, the district and its consultant say there is “no cause for alarm.”
“These materials have been in these buildings for decades, and we have no indications that anyone ever has ever had an adverse outcome from it, and that should be no different today,” Rowland said.