IN THE NEWS: Paint Pigment, Violent Raccoons and Other Surprising Mercury Trivia

Wednesday, January 23, 2013
PBS News Hour   (Browse all news)

Paint Pigment, Violent Raccoons and Other Surprising Mercury Trivia

January 18, 2013
By: Jenny Marder

Delegates gathered in Geneva this week to negotiate for a global treaty to regulate the toxic chemical mercury.

I want to call your attention to a blog on "issues relevant to mercury pollution," run collectively by a group of MIT graduate students. They have been attending the United Nations talks on mercury in Geneva, Switzerland, which are due to wrap up today. Their posts are clever, funny and packed with interesting facts.

For example, did you know that the use of mercury dates as far back as 5,000 B.C.? In Spain, the Romans relied on slave labor to mine mercury, which they used as pigment in their paint. In fact, mercury-laden paint was found in homes "buried by the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.," the post reads. Cool, huh?

In the blog, the students document mercury's presence in popular culture, with a nod to a 1979 horror film called "Prophecy" in which "mercury waste from a logging company creates violent raccoons, salmon large enough to eat a duck and, worst of all, a giant bear-monster that may also be a reincarnated, evil forest spirit." Here's a clip.

They write of the not-so-subtle music choices -- namely Queen's "Under Pressure," which has been broadcast repeatedly over the conference loudspeaker. After noting the Freddie Mercury connection, they suggest a more appropriate playlist, which includes "Running out of Time" by Hot Hot Heat and "Mercury Poisoning" by Graham Parker and the Rumour.

And there's this gem, written from the perspective of a mercury atom floating in a delegate's water bottle.

And most importantly, they address how little people know about mercury and the risks it poses to the environment and human health. Neurological problems, memory loss and kidney, thyroid and pulmonary system problems can occur as a result of exposure to high concentrations. Vaporized mercury can easily pass from your lungs into your blood stream and damage tissues, according to this post. A growing body of evidence, this post notes, indicates a causal relationship between methylmercury and cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and increased blood pressure. People working in mercury mining and refining, thermometer production, dentistry, and in the production of mercury-based chemicals are at increased risk.

Plus, here's mercury in seafood, explained.

In brief, mercury is methylated to methylmercury (CH3HgX) by bacteria in the ocean and then accumulates in fish and marine mammals. Long-lived predatory fish at the top of the food-chain, such as swordfish, tilefish, shark, and tuna, can accumulate dangerously high concentrations of mercury. The US EPA lists guidelines for safe consumption of fish. Women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant should be especially careful about eating mercury contaminated fish because the mercury can be harmful to the developing fetus.

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