Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mercury dangers

EnglishHistoricalAuthors blog asks: Was Charles II killed by poisoning (or maybe accidentally poisoned?) Like a lot of folks back then he was interested in making gold from base metals (i.e.alchemy):
Charles became obsessed with ‘fixing mercury’ and often spent whole mornings in his laboratory. Unfortunately, heating mercury in an open crucible releases toxic mercury vapour which can pass across the blood-brain barrier that protects the central nervous system and it is entirely possible that Charles’ alchemy experiments may have contributed to his death.
Charles final illness included slurred speech, convulsions and then fits. At the time his symptoms were put down to a stroke but this is a condition not usually associated with seizures whereas mercury poisoning is. An autopsy of Charles’ brain revealed that the ventricles contained more water than normal – another finding consistent with mercury poisoning.

The Daily Mail (UK) article here.

Mercury, meanwhile, is usually fatal when breathed in as fumes, but less easily absorbed through the gut. ‘In fact, the Margrave of Brandenburg famously drank a large cup of mercury by accident on his wedding night in 1515, and survived unscathed.’ By accident? On his wedding night? It’s possible that the whole story isn’t being told here.
Whereas Charles II, a keen alchemist, was almost certainly killed by acute mercury poisoning. Such was the actual price of trying to turn base metals into gold.

Read more:
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Medscape article on Mercury:

Organic mercury compounds, specifically methylmercury, are concentrated in the food chain. Fish from contaminated waters are the most common culprits. Industrial mercury pollution is often in the inorganic form, but aquatic organisms and vegetation in waterways such as rivers, lakes, and bays convert it to deadly methylmercury. Fish eat contaminated vegetation, and the mercury becomes biomagnified in the fish. Fish protein binds more than 90% of the consumed methylmercury so tightly that even the most vigorous cooking methods (eg, deep-frying, boiling, baking, pan-frying) cannot remove it. (See Etiology.)
Yes: The problem was one reason why when I worked with the Objibwe in northern Minnesota, that we were told not to eat locally caught fish more than twice a week.
From the MN health department:
In Minnesota, mercury is the contaminant in fish that causes the most concern. Air pollution is the major source of mercury that contaminates the fish in Minnesota’s lakes and rivers—see Sources of Mercury Pollution and the Methylmercury Contamination of Fish in Minnesota (PDF: 50KB/2 pages). About 70 percent of the mercury in the air is the result of emissions from coal combustion, mining, incineration of mercury-containing products and other human sources. Over time, fish can accumulate relatively high mercury concentrations. That’s why it’s important to make wise choices about the fish you eat and how often you eat it.

as the UKMail article notes: Mercury poisoning often was a result of being taken for disease, especially syphillis, (one wonders how many of the "mad kings" of the past were made insane by heavy metal poisoning) but more recently pollution is the major danger:

For centuries, mercury was an essential part of many different medicines, such as diuretics, antibacterial agents, antiseptics, and laxatives. In the late 18th century, antisyphilitic agents contained mercury. It was during the 1800s that the phrase "mad as a hatter" was coined, owing to the effects of chronic mercury exposure in the hat-making industry, where the metal was used in the manufacturing process.
One horrible example of mercury poisoning from industrial pollution occured in Minamata Japan, where thousands of people were affected. It was also known as the "Pink" disease
Minamata disease is an example of organic toxicity. In Minamata Bay, a factory discharged inorganic mercury into the water. The mercury was methylated by bacteria and subsequently ingested by fish. Local villagers ate the fish and began to exhibit signs of neurologic damage, such as visual loss, extremity numbness, hearing loss, and ataxia. Babies exposed to the methylmercury in utero were the most severely affected. Furthermore, because mercury was also discovered in the breast milk of the mothers, the babies' exposure continued after birth.

The scandalous delay in getting the cause of the disease pin pointed can be read in this article from the UK Journal "Brain".

and the Medscape article lists the various sources of mercury contamination in the past and in the present day.

This is the part that worries me:
Newer compact, energy-efficient fluorescent lights contain substantial mercury concentrations, making breakages with subsequent release a concerning source of exposure.[16]

Right now, we are replacing all the light bulbs that were destroyed in a recent typhoon, and here in the Philippines, often people just throw garbage into the vacant lots, street or our open air ditches that serve as sewers...for the last few years, we do have garbage collection (which is getting better) but I still worry about all the mercury filled lightbulbs being discarded.

These new lightbulbs don't last very long, but now they are starting to sell LED bulbs, so maybe if they last longer, I'll start replacing the burnt out bulbs with the LED bulbs. (a lot of the cheaper things here in the Philippines are substandard stuff from unless you invest in buying a good brand at a high end shop, you find the item breaks quickly).

Ah, but they have their own problems, according to this ENN article:

A new study from the University of California (UC) Irvine shows that LED bulbs contain lead, arsenic, and a dozen more potentially hazardous substances... Toxins like lead and arsenic are linked to various cancers, brain damage, hypertension, skin rashes, and other illnesses. The copper in LED bulbs, once released, can affect rivers, lakes, and infect fish. 

yes, but without knowing the level of danger, this is merely a "headsup".

Everything has a risk, but one of my nightmares is the thought of mercury contamination of ground water from millions of discarded light bulbs.

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