Mystery of the mercury spills


KOTA KINABALU: Education officials are in the midst of finding out the cause behind the spate of mercury spill cases in schools around Sabah.

Apart from wanting to get to the bottom of these cases, state Education Department director Datuk Tah Niah Jaman said they were also looking into preventive measures against such incidents.

“Of course, we will come up with ways to help schools prevent these kinds of incidents but first, we need to get details including how they happened,” she said yesterday.

She was asked about the latest mercury spill, this time at SMK Peter Mojuntin Penampang on Wednesday.

It was the sixth case following others reported at SMK Perempuan Sandakan (Sept 30), SMK St Mary Papar (Sept 26), SMK Jambatan Putih Tawau (Sept 14), SMK Bukit Garam 2, Kinabatangan (Aug 12) and SMK Kota Klias, Beaufort (Aug 11).

The health effects of being exposed to the chemical element are documented in a study published by the Health Ministry in 2013.

According to the book, the common mode of exposure to spilled mercury in hospitals is by accidental skin contact with mercury and inhalation of vaporised mercury.

This book provides guidelines on the disposing of mercury and its health effects upon contact and can be viewed at www.moh.gov.my/moh/resources/Penerbitan/Rujukan/Umum/Guideline_on_disposing_Mercury.pdf.

The study mentioned that if a person comes in contact with mercury for a short period of time, a small amount may pass through the skin, but not enough to cause harm.

Health effects from exposure to high levels of mercury vapour through inhalation can cause cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

It can also cause an increase in blood pressure or heart rate, a metallic taste in the mouth, eye irritation, headache and vision problems.

The chronic effects of mercury poisoning are weight loss, insomnia, erythrism, tremors, dysarthria, gingivitis, stomatitis, excessive salivation and metallic taste.

Sabah Health Department director Datuk Dr Rose Nani Mudin said anyone facing broken thermometers or mercury spills must immediately inform the Fire and Rescue Department for assistance.

She said the most important thing when dealing with a mercury spill was to not panic.

“Open the door and windows, leave the room immediately and use an adequate spill kit (if you are trained).

“Call the Fire and Rescue Department to do decontamination and cleaning. Leave doors and windows opened for at least 15 minutes before you enter the room,” she added.

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