Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Update on Novak's Victim | Neighborhood Council Splits Af... »

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mercury and You

posted by on July 23 at 17:26 PM

Mercury poisoning has a delightful triad of characteristic symptoms:

1. Personality changes. (Think: Mad hatter from Alice in Wonderland.)

2. Uncontrollable shaking of the hands. Makes things like writing difficult.

3. (My favorite.) Swollen and bleeding gums combined with drooling.

Severe poisoning (typically from concentrations above 1 mg per cubic meter) shred your lungs until you die.

Basically, it’s like the delightful scene from the movie Airplane! in which the pilot collapses, dooming everyone. I can’t find it on YouTube, so enjoy these instead:

(Jonah asks, I deliver.)

RSS icon Comments


don't forget pink's disease! it's fun for kidz! and it leaches like crazy from landfills where (technically) it's not allowed to be dumped.

Posted by ellarosa | July 23, 2008 6:37 PM

er, mercury, that is.

Posted by ellarosa | July 23, 2008 6:48 PM

But what about long-term, low level exposure? Does it make daffy old ladies declare that they've been lifelong Democrats, but haven't always voted Democratic, and that they'd never, ever vote for Obama?

Posted by CP | July 23, 2008 7:28 PM

"Mercury poisoning, it's fatal and it don't get better"....damned if I can remember the song, lil help?

Posted by Gabe | July 23, 2008 8:08 PM

Airplane is the BEST MOVIE EVER!

Posted by monkey | July 23, 2008 8:14 PM

How about some coffee johnny?

Posted by wisepunk | July 23, 2008 8:26 PM

*Rumour...English band:) Kinda like Colour on the spelling, excuse my American ways.

Posted by Gabe | July 23, 2008 8:28 PM

@ 7: no thanks!

Posted by konstantconsumer | July 23, 2008 9:03 PM

@5, Yeah, I gotta say that Airplane is in my top five movies of all time.

Posted by lawrence clark | July 23, 2008 9:19 PM

I was just thinking the same thing, Gabe -- "I've got Mercury poisoning". It's actually about his record label (Mercury). I saw them play the Paramount in about 1980. Loudest show I ever saw -- louder than The Clash, MBV, Ramones....

Posted by Fnarf | July 23, 2008 9:40 PM

@11: I was born in Seattle before the 70's, but grew up in NJ. Mercury Poisioning was a real concern there when the song came out (don't eat the local fish), though we knew it was about the label...kinda like "Workin' for MCA" by Skynyrd. It was all over the airwaves.

Saw the Ramones in NJ, and the Clash, loudest shows I've ever seen have been at the Charleston in Bremerton in the last

Well, I did see AC/DC in 1985 in the Meadowlands hockey arena, they fired the cannons inside with blanks and I was functionally deaf for a couple days...pieces of the ceiling fell on me, that might have been the loudest.

Posted by Gabe | July 23, 2008 9:59 PM

Since this is about

Let me do some calculations;
30 to 39lb/yr, lets call it 16kg or about 44,000mg/day (I believe cement kilns run 24/7 as it takes a while to heat them up)
I found one source ( that says about the former Kingdome:"Volume - 67 million cubic feet within outside columns" about 1,897,000m³ but lets call that it a million since I'm not interested in the outside columns.
So, if Lafarge ran their exhaust directly in to the Kingdome, with one airchange per day, you'd have about 0.05mg/m³ which, if it is organic mercury compounds, seems to be the OSHA limit (but if it is elemental that would be below the OSHA limit) my exposure limits are from the Wikipedia article on Mercury_poisoning,the page was kind of long so I didn't read it in detail.

Still, I agree, concrete is bad, Mmkay;
I think Sound transit should be using timber trestles and those nice traditional creosote treated wood ties. Another plus, if you use a lot of wood in long lasting structures AND plant new trees, you sequester some carbon! You know a lot of those hated townhouses are wood framed, but they need to start building high rise high density housing with timber frames.

Posted by Epimetheus | July 24, 2008 12:44 AM

Listen you greek poseur, Mercury poisoning was a real thing in the late 70's and early 80's on the East coast, and now it's real here. It collects over time and generations...and fish generations are a bit shorter than human versions.

People were DYING from that shit in NJ in the early 80's, it's not a joke. Now that it's here I'd like to run away. You think Canada will take me?

Posted by Gabe | July 24, 2008 1:44 AM

the non science education is showing here

mercury poisoning is no joke

serious stuff and very dangerous, recent science says MORE dangerous than ever imagined

joke about your dick size, NOT mercury

Posted by Carey (my real name) | July 24, 2008 8:11 AM

So Mr. Science, do you know why mercury is so toxic? Gen chem isn't really my strongest subject, but looking at the periodic table, it's not clear to me why it should be super reactive or anything. We don't see people dying from cadmium exposure, AFAIK. Is it just the low boiling point? Like, if we were breathing cadmium, it would be just as bad?

And what's up with the low boiling point? It's heavy . . .

Inquiring minds. I guess I could wikipedia it, but it's so much easier to just ask a geek.

Posted by violet_dagrinder | July 24, 2008 8:49 AM

I used to work at Tek Cominco back when it was Cominco.

One of the transformers, made around WW I, had liquid pools of mercury - a couple of the operators would just jump in, without donning the whole hazmat suit, into the pools, to fix it.

They also used to stick cigerettes or cigars through holes they punched in their biochem filter masks.

But it is pretty ...

(I can't help it if you guys have had boring lives, it's not my problem)

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 24, 2008 10:17 AM

It's toxic because it stays in your body, and doesn't process out. It does technically process out, but over such a long period of time that it's easier to conceptualize of it as building up over time.

This is why higher orders tend to get side effects from mercury toxicity as they consume fish and other creatures with smaller amounts of mercury but the mercury basically doesn't leave their bodies.

It impacts neurons for the most part.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 24, 2008 10:33 AM

concentrations above 1 mg per cubic meter

Dude. Nobody, but nobody expresses contaminant concentrations by volume, unless the original sample matrix was a liquid. You are talking about tissue, so the concentrations are properly expressed by weight. For metals, concentrations are expressed in parts per million dry weight, or micrograms per gram. Please make a not of it.

-Concerned analytical chemist

Posted by Tlazolteotl | July 24, 2008 10:43 AM

We don't see people dying from cadmium exposure, AFAIK

Actually, we do. That's why there are regulations for folks working in metal plating industries and why cadmium discharges are highly regulated.

Mercury combines with organic compounds to form what are called organo-metallic compounds. These compounds are lipophilic (they like to dissolve in fat) and guess what? Nerves are mostly lipid. So these compounds (mainly methyl-mercury, to a lesser extent ethyl mercury) are more toxic than elemental mercury.

It turns out that marine mammals such as dolphins have evolved a way to deal with mercury in their tissues, as they eat fish that are high trophic level (high in mercury, like most tuna and swordfish). Their diets are also high in selenium, and in their livers, selenium and mercury form a complex that binds the mercury and keeps it from moving to the vulnerable nerve cells. We don't know if humans have this same metabolic capability, and selenium itself can be toxic.

Posted by Tlazolteotl | July 24, 2008 10:53 AM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but virtually all metals are toxic. The variable concentration in your system is what matters as is the manner of exposure. Many metals are essential to a healthy constitution; it's the gross overexposure that, obviously, is the problem.

Having been exposed as it were to Macrobiotics growing up, the idea was that deficiencies in vital minerals can prompt a body to absorb more toxic metals. A person who exercises, keeps a varied, healthy diet, gets adequate sleep and isn't huffing smoke stacks is best prepared to eliminate nominal toxic metal concentrations. I know that's not (rocket) Science, but I was pretty damned healthy.

And Violet: Like Mercury, Cadmium is a metal that accumulates in the body faster than it can be eliminated. Here's a pretty good round-up of Cadmium --

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | July 24, 2008 11:06 AM

I set my friend JD to respond to the earlier Slog post on mercury, as I asked him, "This story doesn't jibe with my dad's stories of playing with globs of mercury in middle school science constantly while he was growing up, and he's a successful engineer now, not a slobbering mess. What gives?"

JD responded, "Combination of fearmongering and fun science! Firstly, pure mercury in liquid form (quicksilver) is relatively safe, even if you eat it. It absorbs horribly through the skin and digestive tract. It's only dangerous if you breath the fumes, and at low doses you have to do so pretty much chronically to see an effect (note: organic mercury compounds are much more dangerous, thus why fish can be scary (though not nearly as scary as they told us when we were kids)). As for the numbers in the article? "A tenth of a milligram per square yard"? What the fuck does that even mean? I assume they mean cubic yard, and from what I see the number is made up. Also? Any idea how many cubic yards are in your living room? I wouldn't worry overmuch: we've been using fluorescent bulbs for decades in every public building in America and they break pretty regular like."

Posted by Christin | July 24, 2008 11:41 AM

@23: I agree. The units are totally fucked. I never saw anything that dumb in school, not even in my sediment transport class, part of which involved making totally ridiculous unit-conversion spreadsheets.

Posted by Greg | July 24, 2008 2:37 PM


Got it. Thanks. :)

Posted by violet_dagrinder | July 27, 2008 10:04 AM

Comments Closed

Comments are closed on this post.