Mercury in its elemental form
is a shiny liquid nicknamed quicksilver. Toxicity effects include
damage to nerve and muscle systems and can cause death (see EXPLORE).
Chronic exposure can lead to emotional problems. Hat makers in
the 1800s used mercury to prepare furs and this exposure often
led to strange behaviors. This is where the Mad Hatter in Alice
in Wonderland got his name.
Today, one of the most common mercury products is the amalgam used in dental fillings. Amalgam accounts for more than half of
the total mercury used commercially. Although there is no evidence
that dental fillings pose health risks, the use of mercury amalgam
is being phased out to reduce discharges of mercury to nature.
Mercury enters the environment when coal is burned
to make electric power. The mercury falls back to the earth and
into lakes where microbes change it into a special form (methylmercury)
which can build up in fish. It is especially important to protect
unborn babies (who get the mercury through their mothers) and children
from mercury pollution. The government tells us what kinds and
how much fish is safe to eat.
In 1932, Chisso Co. began using Minamata's bay as
a repository for its mercury waste, poisoning thousands of people,
and killing hundreds. Because of this tragedy, mercury poisoning
is also called Minamata
Mad as a Hatter