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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009

Effects of Hg

Tremors of the hands, fingers, arms, and even occasionally the whole body are considered by scientists to be a classic indicator of mercury toxicity. However, there are other more serious side effects. 

The kind of mercury spilled at Bethlehem’s water plant in New Scotland was elemental mercury. The element was named after Mercury, the Roman god known for his speed and mobility. It is a chemical element with the symbol Hg, from the Latinized Greek, hydrargyrum, meaning watery or liquid silver.

Often called quicksilver, it is the same kind that is used in thermometers. It is one of six elements that are liquid at or near room temperature and pressure.

Once spilled, it breaks into droplets that vaporize at room temperature into a colorless, odorless gas that is easily inhaled. A variety of side effects can surface once inhaled, the severity of which depends on the person’s age, weight, state of health, as well as sex, diet, and lifestyle, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

Some of the side effects associated with inhaling mercury include personality changes such as irritability, shyness, and nervousness; vision problems; deafness; loss of muscle coordination; memory loss; and numbness. Short-term exposure to high levels of mercury vapor can cause damage to the lining of the mouth, irritated lungs, and coughing as well as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and increased blood pressure. 

The kidneys can also be damaged by large amounts of mercury exposure but the body can clear itself of contamination if no longer exposed. 

Some maintain “mad as a hatter” joined the English vernacular as a result of mercury. Nineteenth-Century European hat makers used an orange solution comprised of mercury nitrate to cure furs that were being made into felt hats. Hatters, and anyone working in the hat shops were steadily inhaling mercury-laced vapors and suffering side effects ranging from tremors to coin-sized holes in the brain. 

In America, Danbury, Conn. was the center of 19th-Century hat making. Fifty-six factories produced more than five million hats per year and the effects of mercury exposure on them were so pronounced that people simply referred to the hat makers’ condition as the “Danbury shakes.”

—    Philippa Stasiuk

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