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Two Rochester Hills schools were closed after high levels of mercury were found in a water sample from a class science experiment.

District officials on Monday announced that Van Hoosen Middle School and Rochester Adams High School would be closed Tuesday while water tests were conducted. Students were dismissed early Monday and all drinking water sources at the schools were disabled, officials said. 

In a statement posted on the school district's Facebook page, Superintendent Robert Shaner said the district learned about the water issue from an Arizona State University laboratory manager and research professor.

The professor indicated that a water sampling taken by a teacher from a science room faucet at Van Hoosen contained mercury levels significantly higher than the maximum contaminant level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency -- 2 parts per billon. 

Three water samples were tested during the science experiment conducted by teacher: one from Van Hoosen Middle School, one from Paint Creek and one from Sargent Creek. The average sampling was 56 ppb, according to the district statement.

Van Hoosen and Rochester Adams schools use the same water source. 

"The safety of our students is always our priority," Shaner said. "Although the tests were not conducted by certified personnel or sent to a certified lab for testing water quality, we still take these concerns very seriously."

The Rochester Hills Department of Public Works is collecting water samples at Van Hoosen and Rochester Adams, and will forward the samples to a certified laboratory for testing, Shaner said. The district expects to receive the results Tuesday. 

Mercury is a naturally occurring chemical element that when released into the air can settle in bodies of water. Exposure can cause loss of peripheral vision, lack of coordination of movement, impairment of speech, hearing loss or walking and muscle weakness, according to the EPA. 

One parent said she was pleased the schools moved to close until water testing results were in.  

"Regardless of how slight the chance is that there is an actual problem, I appreciate that RCS is taking every precaution to make sure that our kids are safe and healthy at school," said Meredith McCutcheon, who has a son in seventh grade at Van Hoosen. "If that means that the schools are closed until they can definitively say that the water is safe, I appreciate that." 

 

Mark Edwards, the Virginia Tech water expert who helped expose Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis, said it is unusual for mercury to be found in a drinking water supply. Rarely, mercury accidentally mixes with water if "chemicals are pumped backwards against the pressure to the water system."

Mercury is more toxic than lead, Edwards said, and the school district was wise to close the schools for more testing.

“It should be taken very seriously,” he said. “It’s right up there with lead in terms of dangers and known health effects.”

The early dismissal on Monday interrupted testing for some seniors at Rochester Adams. The district said in a statement on its website that it would notify seniors of an alternate plan for a testing site and and transportation. 

"The timing is certainly not ideal, but we are doing everything we can to keep our students and staff safe," the statement said. 

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