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The Myth of Killer Mercury
BY WILLIE SOON AND PAUL DRIESSEN
The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued 946 pages of new rules requiring that U.S. power plants sharply reduce their (already low) emissions of mercury and other air pollutants. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claims that while the regulations will cost electricity producers $10.9 billion annually, they will save 17,000 lives and generate up to $140 billion in health benefits.
There is no factual basis for these assertions.
Mercury poisoning (also known as hydrargyria or mercurialism) is a disease caused by exposure to mercury or its compounds. Mercury (chemical symbol Hg) is a heavy metal occurring in several forms, all of which can produce toxic effects in high enough doses. Its zero oxidation state Hg0 exists as vapor or as liquid metal, its mercurous state Hg+ exists as inorganic salts, and its mercuric state Hg2+ may form either inorganic salts or organomercury compounds; the three groups vary in effects. 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. The type and degree of symptoms exhibited depend upon the individual toxin, the dose, and the method and duration of exposure.
Mad hatter disease
Mad hatter disease describes the symptoms of mercury poisoning, specifically its effect on the nervous system. These include paraesthesias, vision and hearing impairment, slurred speech, anxiety, hallucinations, irritability, depression, lack of coordination, and tremors. The condition was observed among workers in the hat-making industry in the 19th century. Chronic mercury exposure was common in hatters who used a mercury solution during the process of curing animal pelts. Poor ventilation in the workshops of the time resulted in the hatters breathing in the fumes of this highly toxic metal, leading to an accumulation of mercury in the workers' bodies. Metal toxicity was poorly understood and the broad range of symptoms were also associated with insanity.
The phrase mad as a hatter may have been derived from the condition, and is commonly associated with Lewis Carroll's character the Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. While the character's eccentricities differ from those suffering from mercury poisoning (the Hatter was likely inspired by Theophilus Carter, a furniture dealer), Lewis Carroll grew up near the town of Stockport, where hatting was the dominant trade.
Mercury Fast Facts:
The term "mad as a hatter" will forever be linked to the madcap milliner in Lewis Carroll's classic children's book, Alice in Wonderland. But few actually know that the true origin of the saying relates to a disease peculiar to the hat making industry in the 1800s. A mercury solution was commonly used during the process of turning fur into felt, which caused the hatters to breathe in the fumes of this highly toxic metal, a situation exacerbated by the poor ventilation in most of the workshops. This led in turn to an accumulation of mercury in the workers' bodies, resulting in symptoms such as trembling (known as "hatters' shakes"), loss of coordination, slurred speech, loosening of teeth, memory loss, depression, irritability and anxiety -- "The Mad Hatter Syndrome." The phrase is still used today to describe the effects of mercury poisoning, albeit from other sources.
Mercury is the most toxic non-radioactive element on earth.
A silver-colored mercury amalgam filling normally contains 52 percent mercury.
On average, amalgam fillings weigh 1 gram and contain ? gram of mercury.
The typical adult carries 10 amalgam fillings containing 5 grams of mercury.
Half a gram of mercury in a 10-acre lake would warrant issuance of a fish advisory for the lake.
Symptoms of Metal Toxicity:
Paraesthesias (numbness and tingling)
Loss of self-confidence
Lack of coordination
Signs and symptoms
Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include peripheral neuropathy (presenting as paresthesia or itching, burning or pain), skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes), swelling, and desquamation (shedding of skin).
Because mercury blocks the degradation pathway of catecholamines, epinephrine excess causes profuse sweating, tachycardia (persistently faster-than-normal heart beat), increased salivation, and hypertension (high blood pressure). Mercury is thought to inactivate S-adenosyl-methionine, which is necessary for catecholamine catabolism by catechol-o-methyl transferase.
Affected children may show red cheeks, nose and lips, loss of hair, teeth, and nails, transient rashes, hypotonia (muscle weakness), and increased sensitivity to light. Other symptoms may include kidney dysfunction (e.g. Fanconi syndrome) or neuropsychiatric symptoms such as emotional lability, memory impairment, or insomnia.
Thus, the clinical presentation may resemble pheochromocytoma or Kawasaki disease.
An example of desquamation of the hand of a child with severe mercury poisoning acquired by handling elemental mercury is this photograph
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