Mercury is an inherently interesting element. In the past, it was called quicksilver for two reasons. It looked like silver but was liquid at room temperature, and its English name derives from the name of the god Mercury who was renowned for his quickness.
Although people have been aware of mercury since antiquity, there have always been those ready to play with this beguiling metal to try to unravel its secrets. Despite its tempting appearance, however, mercury has a darker side. Here are 10 fabulous and fatal facts about mercury.
In the past, mercury was a popular addition to medicines because it can have some dramatic effects on the body. Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a keen prescriber of pills containing huge quantities of mercury. Today, historians are very glad that he did.
When Lewis and Clark set off to explore the western areas of the North American continent, Dr. Rush was one of the advisers for the adventure. As they would be traveling through the wilderness, they would have to take everything they could possibly need. One of the indispensable drugs they were told to take was Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills.
These pills were designed to open the bowels and cure everything from constipation to weariness, and they did it through the huge amounts of mercurous chloride in the pills. It was so effective that members of the expedition called the pills “thunderclappers” or “thunderbolts.”
Although the members of the expedition may or may not have been helped by their mercury pills, historians have certainly been aided by them. One of the methods of tracing the route of the Lewis and Clark team has been to check possible campsites for raised levels of mercury left behind when the thunderbolts did their work.
The tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, has already given the world one of the great wonders of the past. Thousands of terra-cotta warriors were buried beside the emperor to guard him in death.
Yet there may be greater wonders lurking inside the tomb itself. Fittingly for an emperor who may have died due to taking mercury in an effort to become immortal, his burial place may be surrounded by a moat of the metal.
The emperor lies buried in an unexcavated hill, but there are hints as to what may be waiting inside. A replica of his kingdom was apparently built for his tomb under a dome set with pearls to replicate the position of the stars. Rivers of mercury flowed across the land, and an ocean of mercury surrounded it.
Researchers at the site have found that mercury in the soil is up to 50 times higher than expected. Perhaps there really are lakes of mercury waiting in the tomb, but it seems unlikely we will be going inside anytime soon. The Chinese government will not allow archaeologists inside in case they accidentally destroy valuable information and artifacts during their excavation.
One of the primary sources of mercury metal is the mineral cinnabar. Simply heating the mineral in air will produce mercury vapor which can then be collected and condensed into the metal. Due to the toxic nature of mercury vapor, this process has caused untold harm to the workers who have done this over the centuries.
Cinnabar is a vivid red mineral that is often found around volcanic sites. Due to its attractive appearance, it has been collected since at least the 10th millennium BC. Cave paintings were daubed in vermilion (the powdered form of cinnabar), and skulls were coated in it for some unknown symbolic purpose.
Although most cultures made use of this red pigment, the Romans were most enamored with it. While it was used in paintings and murals, it also held religious significance.
Pliny the Elder described how it was used during “festivals to color the face of the statue of Jupiter . . . as well as the bodies of triumphant generals.” Even though the Romans loved cinnabar, they knew it was a deadly poison. The only people to work in their mercury mines were unfortunate slaves and condemned criminals.
Mercury is both alluring and toxic in its metallic form. While the metal itself is relatively safe, the vapor which it emits can cause chronic poisoning. This is not the most frightening form of mercury poisoning, however. There is a case where just two drops of a mercury compound brought about the terrifying death of a scientist.
Professor Karen Wetterhahn was performing an experiment with dimethylmercury when she accidentally spilled one or two drops of the chemical on her gloved hand. Since she was using all the advised safety precautions, she was not overly concerned.
What was not known, however, was that dimethylmercury is able to readily soak through the latex in lab gloves and into the skin. As it is a relatively small molecule, it is taken up into the body where it wreaks havoc with nerves, among other processes.
Over several months, Professor Wetterhahn became increasingly sick. She began vomiting and slurring her speech. She lost her sense of balance, and her hearing and vision became blurred.
Once doctors learned that she had mercury poisoning, they gave her drugs that bind to mercury to flush it from her system. But it was already too late. She died after falling into a coma.
Dimethylmercury may be one of the scariest chemicals a scientist can use. In comparison, metallic mercury looks downright safe. There have been many cases of people ingesting liquid mercury who have suffered relatively few consequences—but please do not try this at home.
In ancient Asia, liquid mercury was given to people as a cure for constipation. Due to its density, metallic mercury has a cleansing effect on the intestines as its weight pushes everything out.
Hardly any mercury remains in the body after drinking it because the metal has what is called low bioavailability—no way to enter the metabolism. The danger comes from inhaling mercury vapor as you drink your quicksilver because the vapor can be taken up by the body.
In one case, a three-year-old child drank 750 grams of mercury after finding a bottle of it in his house. Despite having his stomach pumped, some mercury had already passed into his digestive tract. X-rays showed clumps of mercury throughout his intestines, and drops of mercury were found in the child’s diaper.
After seven days, however, all the mercury had passed out of the child. Blood tests showed a raised mercury level. But with treatment, this returned to normal and no ill effects were experienced. However, the parents may have added a lock to their cupboard doors.
If drinking mercury is a poor choice, then injecting elemental mercury is definitely something not to try at home. Most often, people who inject themselves with liquid metal do so with the intention of committing suicide. But due to the low bioavailability of mercury, death is not certain. Often, the result is long-term pain and suffering.
There are other reasons why people may inject themselves with mercury, however. One case involved a teenage girl who was in no way suicidal—she had simply seen something similar in a movie.
While the case report does not mention the movie, the girl had seen a person injected with metal that made the bones become as strong as metal. The girl experienced a fever and rash. Her parents took her to the hospital where doctors worked swiftly to remove the mercury with drugs and surgery.
Other cases of mercury injection have been recorded where the people involved believed that mercury would act as an aphrodisiac. If injected mercury is not removed quickly, it can cause fatal blockages in veins and arteries, leading to cell death or, worse, person death.
Mercury was a favorite ingredient for alchemists. As they struggled to understand the chemical world though the use of metaphor and metaphysics, the alchemists discovered many startling reactions that they thought hinted at the true nature of reality.
As mercury is both a metal and a liquid, they thought it bridged the gap between different states of matter and might hold the clue they needed to make gold from base materials. One reaction used by alchemists to show off their powers was by mixing mercury with nitric acid. An impressive red vapor forms above the mixture, and vivid red crystals are produced.
Isaac Newton was a keen alchemist and thought that he was close to finding the alchemical secret of creating gold. He believed that a “living” mercury could be produced that would form gold to swell up and produce more of itself.
In fact, there is only one method of turning mercury to gold and that was discovered in the 1960s. A physicist bombarded mercury atoms with neutrons which can cause a proton in the nucleus to capture an electron and become a neutron itself. If you do this to mercury, you can get the formation of gold!
But modern alchemists should be aware that the process is horribly inefficient. One estimate suggests that to get even a penny’s worth of gold like this would take 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
If you get syphilis today, you may be lucky enough to have it cured tomorrow by a doctor with a dose of antibiotic. However, people in the past were not so fortunate.
Syphilis was a terrifying disease that could lie in wait for decades before unleashing a wave of horrific symptoms. Before being reduced to madness, the syphilitic person might have parts of his nose and face rot off. No wonder people turned to anything thought to provide a cure.
A popular saying was “a night with Venus; a lifetime with Mercury.” After you caught syphilis from too much love, you had to turn to the god—and metal—Mercury for a cure.
People would inhale mercury steams, rub themselves with mercury creams, and gobble down pills laced with it to try to heal themselves. Mercury may have helped as it was toxic to the germs which caused syphilis. Unfortunately, it was just as toxic to the patients.
As syphilis could be passed to wives and children, there was a trade in drinking chocolate that contained mercury. By this clandestine method, infected husbands were able to slip the treatment to the rest of their families without ever telling them that they were sick.
The ability to fix cavities before they lead to the loss of teeth is one of the miracles of modern dentistry. Today, it is possible that you will die with most of your own teeth still in your head. In the past, you either died after having lost your teeth or because of a tooth infection. To fix teeth, many dentists turned to the wonderful properties of mercury alloys called amalgams.
To make an amalgam, a powder of several metals, often silver and tin, is mixed with liquid mercury. The mercury takes up the other metals and forms a thick paste. The dentist smears this in the hole in the tooth and shapes it. The paste then hardens and expands slightly, allowing it to stay securely in place.
Unfortunately, there are obvious drawbacks to this. When dentists used to mix amalgams by hand, they and their patients were exposed to mercury vapors. Now dentists use machines to mix amalgams, but should you still be worried about the mercury in your mouth?
The latest research says no. The mercury in fillings does not seem to raise the level of mercury in your body. The only real threat of mercury being released by your fillings is during cremation, and by then, it is unlikely to make you feel any worse.
Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter may have been suffering from a disease known as erethism. So common was it for people who worked in the hat industry to go mad that neurological mercury poisoning was called “mad hatter syndrome.”
To make animal furs soft to create hats, they often underwent a process called carroting—named for the orange liquid in which they were washed that contained mercury. Workers would breathe in these fumes day after day as mercury accumulated in their nervous systems. In Danbury, Connecticut, where five million hats per year were produced, the symptoms of mercury poisoning were known as the “Danbury shakes.”
If you were unfortunate enough to be a hatter, you could look forward to experiencing personality changes such as crippling shyness, excitability, and irritability. As mercury continued to build up in the brain, hatters could suffer delirium, shaking, suicidal thoughts, and even hallucinations.
Next time a delightfully eccentric hatter invites you to a dinner party, maybe take your own food—and your own hat.