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The History & Health Effects of Mercury

Old and dangerous: The pitfalls and past of Mother Nature’s liquid metal

Mercury is an organic substance so it’s safe, right? No, it’s not. Mercury liquid is shiny and beautiful but it is also extremely dangerous. Historically, elemental mercury – known as ‘quicksilver’ – was favoured by the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Romans, each of which were intrigued by its mirror hue and liquid state, until they began to realise the danger it posed. Sadly, the devastating truth about the side effects of mercury was not really passed down through history. It was only in the last hundred years that real efforts have been made to make people aware of the dangers that mercury poses to our health.

Found in the crust of the earth, mercury was originally mined by the Romans who derived this quicksilver from cinnabar, a stunning red rock that is found prolifically in certain European countries. As miners of this toxic compound began to lose their minds and struggle with tremors, people started to realise the deadly secret that mercury held: it’s a stone-cold killer whether by inhalation or osmosis. But as it would appear, hardly anyone took notice.

Roman homes that were buried by Mount Vesuvius were found to be painted with cinnabar pigment, which is filled with mercury. Given the death sentence it poses, surprisingly the mercury component, which has great anti-fungal properties, was still used in paint up until 1991. It was phased out for health reasons but not before many people throughout history bore the frightening side effects.

17th Century hatters used mercury to treat the fibres in the felt that they used to make their hats. The treatment solution varied between camel and human urine until one hatter discovered his mercury medication improved the condition of the felt. His hats became known for their superior quality, while his health deteriorated until he went mad, and died. Many hatters used the mercury until it became an endemic, and in Connecticut the “Danbury Shakes” was a recognised ailment amongst hatters.

Given its prevalence of use, and deadly impact on lives throughout history, it’s surprising that everyday people don’t fully understand mercury and what it can do to the human body. The fact that pharmaceutical companies used it in thermometers and dentists still used it as dental fillings, up until recently, truly boggles the mind and strikes fear into those who still have this deadly metal embedded in their teeth. It’s also used in alkaline batteries and electrical switches; why would you put it in someone’s mouth, permanently?

Mercury provides absolutely no value whatsoever to the human form and is basically a poison. Succumbing to this silent killer depends largely on the level and form of exposure. Acute mercury poisoning, such as inhalation, can cause psychotic episodes and suicidal impulses whereas low-level exposure causes seizures and spasms.

As a naturally occurring component, mercury is found in some of the fish we eat, which is why laboratory analysers take care to monitor the metal in a wide range of products to ensure humans are no longer subjected to the debilitating illnesses of mercury poisoning.

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