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    Education Ministry to probe Nazareth mercury debacle
    Toxic material contamination in one of northern city's middle school draws attention to conflicting directives given to schools on hazardous materials' storage; safety guidelines

    The Education Ministry has formed a special taskforce to investigate the mercury contamination in a Nazareth middle school, last week.

     

    The school had to be temporarily shut down after some of the students got hold of the toxic material and scattered it around school grounds.

     

    Environmental Protection Ministry inspectors found extreme contamination in the school yard – four times higher than the legal definition of a "severe contamination" on the premises.

     

    It is likely to be weeks before the area is deemed safe again.

     

    According to Yedioth Ahronoth, the case quickly led to the discovery of highly problematic guidelines given to schools nationwide regarding the proper storage of hazardous materials in their laboratories.

     

    The Education Ministry's directives were found to be insufficient and conflicting, as well as lacking in supervision and enforcement. All those are apparently compounded by a lack of awareness among teachers and headmasters.

     

    Yedioth Ahronoth's inquiry found startling examples of conflicting instructions: In the case of mercury, for example, while it appears on the list of banned substances given out to schools, another list – once distributed to chemistry teachers by the ministry subject supervisor – states that school laboratories must stock it. Such contradictions appear for other chemicals as well.

     

    The Education Ministry also fails to perform routine inspection of school labs, therefore falling short in enforcement of storage regulations and procedures.

     

    Sources in the Education Ministry agreed that "at times, the guidelines are confusing."

     

    "Over the past few months, not one ministry inspector has come here," a principal at a Ramat HaSharon high school said. "I trust my subject coordinator, who is responsible for the labs. He makes sure the teachers are aware of the directive."

     

    A headmaster at a high school in northern Israel added that she sees an Education Ministry inspector "Only about once a year. There are no surprise inspections."

     

    The Environmental Protection Ministry, which normally supervises the possession of hazardous materials, seems to have its hand ties, as the quantities held by schools fall under the legal amount stipulated for a permit in Israel's Hazardous Material Law, which was enacted in 1993.

     

    The Education Ministry's middle and high school science and technology supervisor Shosh Cohen, said that "Teachers and must attend annual safety seminars during which we update them on the rules and regulations regarding hazardous materials."

     

    She admitted, however, that the ministry has "no real way" of knowing whether the guidelines are implemented.

     

    An Education Ministry statement said that following the Nazareth case, "The guidelines will be reviewed and revised on all necessary levels." 

     

    Ahiya Raved and Tamar Trabelsi-Hadad contributed to this report

     

     

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