Day 16: Mercury

Mercury is a metal that occurs in liquid form (sometimes called quicksilver) that can cause serious health problems.  In the form of methylmercury, which is widely present in the environment and often consumed in fish and shellfish, it can cause serious neurological  impairment in fetuses, infants and children, leading to severe disabilities in cognitive thinking, memory, language and motor skills.  Although elemental mercury is generally not found in drinking water, other mercury compounds can be associated with severe kidney damage, memory loss, skin rashes, mode swings and muscle weakness.

 

History:
Mercury has been well known for over 5000 years, seen as an enigmatic substance exhibiting both the properies of metal and a liquid.  It has long been used in sacred rites, and it is suspected that the unexcavated underground tomb of Qin Shi Hang, the first emperor of China (which is famously known for being guarded by an army of Terra Cotta Warriors), contains an underground city flowing with rivers of mercury symbolizing the great rivers of China.  It has been used in cosmetics, pigments and fashion, once being a primary ingredient in the manufacturing of felt hats (and the source of dementia made famous by Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland).  Although its use has been largely banned because of its health dangers, it continues to be used in the manufacturing of fluorescent lightbulbs, and and the backlighting for many LED computer displays.

 

Further reading:
Aldersey-Williams, Hugh. Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements. Viking: London, 2011.

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