Mercury found in drinking fountain at Nebraska high school

OMAHA, Neb. --

A hazardous material team from the Omaha Fire Department was called to Burke High School after students discovered mercury in a drinking fountain Friday.

Ten students were taken to the hospital to be checked out for any exposure to the hazardous metal, firefighters said. The students were showing no signs of illness.

The student who made the discovery alerted a teacher who believed the substance was mercury, firefighters said.

Investigators said two students apparently brought the mercury to school in a soda cup and put it in the drain. Police were called in to help with the investigation and were talking to the two students.

A small section of a hallway near the cafeteria was closed off, as well as two bathrooms, and all fountains in the school were shutdown while firefighters investigated. Hazardous materials experts dismantled the drinking fountain where the mercury was discovered.

"Everyone was freaking out. They didn't know what was going on. The people were scared," said freshman Abbie Petersen. "It was unreal for a while. I couldn't believe that this was actually going on in our school."

The water supply in the school was not contaminated by the mercury. It was contained to the water fountain nearest the school's cafeteria, firefighters said.

Investigators said that if anyone who drank from that particular water fountain if feeling ill, they should contact their doctor or go to the emergency room.

Firefighters said no one showed signs of illness, but mercury is a dangerous chemical that requires special responses.

"It can cause flu symptoms in small exposures," said Omaha fire Battalion Chief Cathy Bossman. "It's what we had today. Nobody was exposed to it for a long time frame."

Burke High School dismissed at 12:45 p.m., as the hazardous materials team continued its work. All after-school activities at Burke were canceled Friday. The school is expected to be open on Saturday and classes will be held on Monday.

"It's a scary situation. You send your kids to school and you just want to get them in there and learn and come home safely," said parent Tamara Westbrook. "I got in touch with my daughter right away and asked her if she was OK. She said she was OK, and I said, 'I'm going to come up to the school.'"

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