Posts Tagged ‘mercury’

Make you Fink on Friday

All of Earth Now a Mercury Hotspot

Nearly a year ago, I interviewed David Evers, the executive director of Maine’s Biodiversity Research Institute, on the revelation that insect-eating inland songbirds can accumulate mercury at dangerous levels every bit as much as fish-eating river and coastal birds. He called the findings a “game-changing paradigm shift” for understanding mercury’s pernicious presence.

The paradigm has shifted anew in a far more dramatic way. The institute and IPEN, the global anti-toxics network, released a first-of-its-kind report Wednesday that found mercury levels in fish and human hair samples from around the world exceed guidelines set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The report is titled “Global Mercury Hotspots.” In reality, the whole world is a hotspot.

“It was in more fish and people than I would have projected,” Evers said Monday in an interview. “The more you look into mercury, the more you find.”Global mercury hotspots. (Dastoor, AP; Larocque, Y: “Global circulation of atmospheric mercury: a modelling study”)

The report was released just as final United Nations negotiations are set to begin next week in Geneva on an international treaty to curb the production and spread of mercury. Here in the United States, the Obama administration issued in 2011 the nation’s first guidelines governing emissions of mercury and other toxins from fossil fuel-fired power plants, saying they will save up to 11,000 lives a year with cleaner air.

But mercury emissions continue to be spewed into the air from coal-fired power and plastic production in Asia, chemical plants in Europe, waste incinerators in developing countries, and artisanal small-scale gold mining in Africa, Asia, and South America. In a report this week in the online journal Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health researcher Elsie Sunderland said seawater mercury concentrations could increase 50 percent by 2050 in the major fishing waters of the North Pacific Ocean.

The level of current mercury concentration is already so high that Evers’ team found that 43 percent of Alaskan halibut samples exceeded safety standards, even if there’s only one serving a month. The percentages were 80 percent and above for swordfish from Uruguay, Pacific bluefin tuna from Japan, and albacore tuna from the Mediterranean Sea.

The vast majority of hair samples taken from people in Tanzania, Russia, Mexico, Cameroon, Cook Islands, Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand contained mercury concentrations above EPA recommendations. Another hair sample study focusing on Europeans was published this week in Environmental Health. That study suggests that a third of the 5.4 million babies born each year in the European Union come into the world with unhealthy exposures to mercury, which can cause learning disabilities that result in billions of dollars in lost economic benefit.

All these factors suggest a global treaty would be an essential tool to begin lowering the risk of mercury. “We can do all we want in the US, but we’re still downwind from Asia and we still eat tuna from all over the world,” Evers said.

First, the birds tried to warn us how mercury is embedded in the ecosystem, from marsh to forest. Then the fish tried to warn us, from river to sea. Now, our very own hair is telling us how this very old toxin presents very new problems. That thought should create enough urgency to bring about an international solution.

© 2012 The Boston Globe

More evidence that man is his own worst enemy. We are too busy making money and ignoring all the warning signs.

Now it’s too late, we are slowly poisoning ourselves with mercury.

Johmmy Depp as the Mad Hatter

Johmmy Depp as the Mad Hatter

While Johnny Depp’s character and the many cartoon Mad Hatters have been portrayed humourously, mercury poisoning is no laughing matter.

Have you ever wondered at the character’s name, The Mad Hatter?

“The phrase mad as a hatter is likely a reference to mercury poisoning, as mercury-based compounds were once used in the manufacture of felt hats in the 18th and 19th century. (The Mad Hatter character of Alice in Wonderland was, it is presumed, inspired by an eccentric furniture dealer named Theophilus Carter. Carter was not a victim of mad hatter disease although Lewis Carroll would have been familiar with the phenomenon of dementia that occurred among hatters.)” – Wikipedia

More from Wikipedia:

“Toxic effects include damage to the brain, kidney, and lungs. Mercury poisoning can result in several diseases, including acrodynia (pink disease), Hunter-Russell syndrome, and Minamata disease. Symptoms typically include sensory impairment (vision, hearing, speech), disturbed sensation and a lack of coordination.”


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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