Posts Tagged ‘incandescent heat’

Mad as a Hatter

Carrol's depiction of the Hatter

Anyone with a modicum of education has heard the saying “Mad as a hatter,” but from whence came the saying? Many attribute it to Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, but it was in use before then. Mercury has been used in England since the 1830s when it was discovered that a hatter who was being treated for syphilis with a mercuric compound made better quality felt hats. Hatters used their own urine to make the camel hair more pliable; and so mercuric nitrate replaced the use of urine for softening the camel hair.

Mercury was prized by the Egyptians

Sublimate (HgCl2 ) is in certain countries still used as an antiseptic for wounds. It was used in large quantities during the World Wars, triggered by the largely increased use of Hg in explosives. Sublimate was also used for preserving wood. Nowadays, the use of Hg in medicine, pharmaceutical products, and gold mining has been prohibited or restricted in industrialized countries, but is still a topic of large concern for the population in many other countries

So mercury has been around for a long time even though it was recognised as a poison in the times of Pliny.

Modern day uses of mercury:

  • For the manufacturing of industrial chemicals or for electrical and electronic applications.

  • In thermometers.

  • The contentious CFL

    As mercury sphygmomanometers, a blood pressure meter.

  • Thimerosal, an organic compound is used as preservative in vaccines and tattoo inks.

  • As mercury barometers, diffusion pumps, coulometers, and many more laboratory instruments.

  • In mercury arc rectifier, a type of electrical rectifier that converts alternate current into direct current.

  • In mercury-vapor lamps and some neon advertising signs and fluorescent lamps and of course CFLs.

  • Once used as coolant for nuclear reactors, which has been replaced by sodium and also in the amalgamation process of refining gold and silver ores.

  • As folk medicine and ceremonial purposes that involves ingestion, injection, or the sprinkling of elemental mercury around the home.

  • In mercury switches, mercury cells and chlorine production, electrodes, batteries, and catalysts.

  • As herbicides, insecticides, dental amalgams and liquid mirror telescopes.

The current debate centres around CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lights). Many argue that the amount used in these lights is so small as not to be a problem; and then argue that mercury is present in many other household things like batteries so why are we bitching.

Many millions in the Third World

A CFL contains about 5mg of mercury, that’s about the size of the ball on a ballpoint pen (compared to the 11.6mg in a 4′ fluorescent tube), and it can be recycled; if the people recycle them. And herein lies the problem can the people be educated to understand the dangers and recycle them; I am not referring to people who are already been ‘greened’ like yourselves, rather I am referring to the many millions in third world countries who don’t have the education to understand nor do they have the facilities to recycle and are having CFLs forced on them by equally ignorant governments thinking they are doing the right thing. The problem is not just American or European, it’s global.

Dissipated heat from CFL vs incandescent bulb

CFLS use a fraction of the power of incandescent light bulbs, therefore the saving is enormous. But think about this, if you use an incandescent bulb it generates heat, a CFL does not. By using a CFL you end up using more power for heating in the home and the difference in power usage becomes far less significant.

The main argument I can see against CFLs is that the mercury is okay when it’s in the CFL, but it’s when the mercury comes out of the CFL through breakage (accidental or operational), or disposal that it becomes a giant problem.

Why were hatters called mad?

Because they were exposed to mercury vapour that attacks the nervous system. Erratic, flamboyant behavior was one of the most evident alterations caused by mercury; others included excessive drooling and difficulties in talking and thinking clearly, mood swings, psychotic reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal tendency. There were physical effects too, hair loss, uncontrollable muscle twitching, a lurching gait. Stumbling about in a confused state with slurred speech and trembling hands, affected hatters were sometimes mistaken for drunks. The ailment became known as “The Danbury Shakes”. Today these are the symptoms of diseases that we know as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Grinning inanely like the Cheshire cat

Before we all start running around grinning inanely like the Cheshire cat, the whole matter is rather serious.

While the poor Cheshire cat may not have been subjected to mercury, he is the embodiment of the aberrations displayed by Hatters who had been.

So don’t take the issue of mercury lightly, this may be a case of the cure (CFLs) are worse than the disease (incandescent bulbs).


I wrote this post in response to the many comments, for and against CFLs, after the recent challenge on Reduce Footprint’s Change the World Wednesday and the comments that flowed on to the next week as well. There are many facets that I did not cover such as industry and food contamination and the fact that mercury has been present as a naturally occurring substance for millions of years. This is not meant to be a definitive guide to all aspects of mercury; just my thoughts and observations.

It was also meant to be my Fink on Friday post, but WordPress was only a partial service all day Friday and only came right this morning. So I had to resort to publishing a post that was already prepared, but nevertheless important.

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