Posted by: Green Knight | November 19, 2011

How Hazardous Is It?

I haven’t talked toxicology in a while, but am motivated to do so now because of a story in Poison by Nathan Wolfe, a book I mentioned in my “Reading List.”  My PR friend Donna tells me that I should just italicize book titles, so that’s what I’m doing now…I was brought up to underline them, and italicize or put in quotation marks magazine articles; old school.  I’m also told that double-spacing between sentences is out of date.  Hmmm, well, some of the people I’m trying to impress are older-school than ME.  I’ll perhaps shed that habit eventually.

At any rate, the tragic story is about a woman who was working with methyl mercury, the stuff that poisoned hundreds of people in Minamata Bay in Japan in the ’50s and ’60s.  They just got diluted doses over years, what we call a chronic exposure, but the person in question got exposed to the pure stuff.  You can drink all the pure elemental liquid mercury you want, no harm done.  Your digestive system doesn’t absorb it hardly at all.  Your poop might qualify as hazardous waste, though, and since tomorrow is World Toilet Day, we might hafta monitor your evacuations.  Bag it & tag it!

One way where mercury is hazardous, though, is inhaling the vapors.  Skin contact, not a problem.  Swallowing it, not a problem.  Inhaling vapors, big BIG problem.  Isaac Newton had a meltdown doing alchemy experiments from that very cause.  Cinnabar, mercury sulfide, the red ore of the element, is prevalent in Spain, and the miners used to get the shakes from breathing the vapors in the mines, because there was free liquid mercury in the deposits.  The Mad Hatter from Alice was mad because hatmakers used to use mercury solutions on the felt when making hats, and it messed up their nervous systems.  Before there were protective regulations, the mines in Spain would just send you to a company-owned spa for a few weeks to sweat the Hg (hydrargyrum, mercury, see the periodic table) out of your system under sun lamps.  That took care of the temporary effects, but not the cumulative, longterm ones.  Chronic and acute are different and both take their toll.  And dolphins, whales, tuna, and swordfish don’t have that luxury.

Getting back to that person in the lab, the other way to make mercury really dangerous is to hook it up to an organic chemical.  No, we’re not talking about organic food here; organic chemistry is a different beast.  You might know that ethyl alcohol is the safe type to drink, like what’s in my Cabernet, and methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol, is the stuff to avoid.  Methyl is always more toxic than ethyl, it just goes with the program.  But often, sticking a toxic metal into an organic (carbon-chain) formula makes it a lot worse for you.  Don’t forget that even water is toxic if you drink too much of it all at once (hyponatremia is what happens)…Paracelsus, paraphrased, said “the dose is the poison.”  This person was working with pure methyl mercury, in a fume hood, with latex gloves on.  Unfortunately, latex blocks water-soluble materials but not lipid-solubles.  Lipids are basically fatty tissues, oils, grease, etc.  Latex is natural rubber from trees, right?  She splashed a few drops of the methyl mercury onto her hand, and didn’t take off the glove and rinse immediately.

Result?  Death sentence.  Some exposures don’t produce immediate results; in this case, it was 4 months before her nervous system started to go haywire, and another 4 months before it killed her.  But this is one of those exposure types where there’s no treatment and no cure.  If she’d peeled off that glove and rinsed her hand right away, she might have had a chance.  Don’t forget, this was a trained professional.  This is why, when teaching classes to newbies, I quote an old fire service statement: “if you don’t know, don’t go.”  Evacuate the area and get uphill and upwind.  But enough people don’t read labels on the stuff they have around the house, and end up mixing bleach with ammonia, every damn day.  I suppress my weird sense of humor when lives are at stake, and apparently there will always be a need for safety instructors.

P.S. i’m reminded of a spill at a hospital in Chicago back in the late ’80s…a janitor knocked over a gallon glass jar of liquid mercury, tried to sweep it up with his broom, and went on to sweep the rest of the building.  The cleanup ran into the millions, from what I heard.


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