No More Mercury in Science Class? Totally Lame.

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The school was deserted. There was no teaching nor hand raising, no recess nor laughter. Instead, EPA officials scoured the grounds in haz-mat suits.

In 2005, a mercury vapor scare forced South Granville High School in North Carolina to shut down for over a week. School officials took this drastic measure after two students stole liquid mercury used for a science class demonstration. After the heist, the students passed it around to their friends, who may have been awed by its silvery luster and its unbelievably high density. The students then brought the mercury home and continued to toy with the toxic substance. Their homes later had to be evacuated.

A similar situation occurred in Washington, D.C. two years prior to the Granville incident. Except that school was shut down for over a month! Similarly in 2009, students at a high school in Avondale, Arizona nabbed some mercury from science class. Their school was shut down for a week, and two of the students' families had to be relocated from their contaminated homes.

For decades, mercury, also known as quicksilver, has been synonymous with science class. As the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining exhibition. Lead can float in a pool of mercury. (Woah!) And only two tablespoons of the element weighs in at nearly one pound. (Cool!)

Pouring_liquid_mercury_bionerd.jpgLiquid mercury. (Bionerd, Wikimedia Commons)

In my father's 4th grade 1950s science class, he was told to hold out his hand. The teacher would then pour mercury into his cupped palm. Mesmerized, my father would swish the metal around and watch it trace the creases of his palm. But that was then.

This is now. The dangers of mercury are well known. Cognitive impairment, memory lapses, lung damage, and death are a few of the alarming hazards. Chronic exposure to mercury causes fatigue and leads to birth defects.

In light of these dangers, it appears that mercury demonstrations in high school science class may be on the way out. In Minnesota, it already is. The Minnesota Legislature passed a law in 2007 banning mercury in elementary and secondary schools.

I must admit, I do mourn for mercury's almost inevitable removal from science class. It was one of the more memorable demonstrations from high school chemistry. But considering mercury's dangers and our society's propensity towards suing school districts, the move is understandable. Luckily there are plenty of YouTube videos out there to pick up where chemistry class will leave off.

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