When I was in 8th grade, I had a “super cool!” chemistry teacher, Mr. Archibald. He would always wear a white lab coat as he taught, which made him look official and knowledgeable – and I’m sure he WAS knowledgeable – but to be honest, chemistry wasn’t my thing. I tended to doodle and whisper with my classmates instead of really buckling down and paying attention. If someone had me at gunpoint and told me to recite the periodic table of elements, I’d definitely get shot full of Pb (that’s number 82 on the periodic table, just so you know – and if I hadn’t had to look that up online, I would feel much more clever).
The one time Mr. Archibald had my full and undivided attention was the day he taught us about the element, mercury. We all crowded around one of the lab tables as Mr. Archibald poured some mercury into his hand and swirled it around a bit. He explained that mercury had been found Egyptian tombs from 1500 BC. The Greeks had used it in ointments and the ancient Romans and Egyptians used it in cosmetics. He poured the mercury he was holding into the outstretched hand of the student standing next to him and told him to pass it around. When the mercury made it to me, I cradled it in my palm, mesmerized by the metallic silver shine, the way it kept its shape as I rocked my hand back and forth, and the cool feel that seemed to radiate from the element. When the kid next to me got tired of waiting and elbowed me in the ribs to get my attention, I jumped a bit and part of the mercury spilled from my hand onto the table. All of us gasped as seemed to explode and dozens of tiny silver marbles scattered across the table. As I tried to wipe up the spill, the marbles merged together again like magic. It looked exactly like that scene in Terminator 2.
I was fascinated with mercury from then on. During lunch, my friends and I would sneak into the chemistry room and break out the mercury, pouring it from one hand to the next and occasionally dropping some on the floor so we could watch it ball up and scatter. This went at least a few days a week for the better part of a year. While I’m sure Mr. Archibald must have mentioned the dangers of playing with mercury, I hadn’t been paying attention. Then I stumbled upon Elemental, a blog by Deborah Blum, who is a science writer and the author of a great book called The Poisoner’s Handbook. In one post, she mentioned heavy metal poisoning and that mercury was a heavy metal (another thing I didn’t remember from Mr. Archibald’s lectures).
A short time later, I saw a local news story about a fellow who had acquired some mercury and he had gone to several businesses in town, showing it off, playing with it, and spilling some. When the authorities found out they evacuated and closed the businesses, bringing in hazmat teams to clean up. That surprised me. Was mercury so dangerous? After some additional research, I learned that mercury can enter the body through the skin, if you breathe it (for example, if it gets spilled and “aerosolized”) or if you eat it (people used to think it would cure constipation or syphilis and would drink it – but most mercury ingestion these days comes from eating fish). As it is a heavy metal, it accumulates in your body and can cause neurological symptoms (including vision, hearing and speech problems), a lack of coordination, and damage to the kidney and lungs.
One fun fact I learned was that the phrase “Mad as a Hatter” may have come about because mercury used to be used by those who made hats. As their nervous system was affected, they would tremble and appear insane.
About that time, I started to worry – had I poisoned myself in my youth? Did I still have mercury lurking in my brain and fat cells (believe me, I have plenty of THOSE for mercury to hide in). I wear glasses, I have a hearing loss in one ear, and I’m awfully clumsy – coincidence or mercury poisoning? I couldn’t find any definite research online explaining how long heavy metals stay in your body (forever?) or if they became less dangerous over tine (was there a “half-life” like uranium has?)
I tracked down an email address for Ms. Blum, thinking if anyone knew the answer, she would. I explained the situation and sent the email off – thinking I would soon have an answer and then could write this post, dispensing the knowledge to others who had been teenage chemists. Alas, Ms. Blum never responded to my query – perhaps I came off as a crazy internet stalker type. I admit, I’ve been accused of THAT before. But in my defense, perhaps my craziness can be blamed on mercury poisoning! I guess we will never know.