Mercury The Silent Killer

Mercury is considered by toxicologists to be one of the most poisonous naturally occurring substances on the earth. Because of its tremendous toxicity, it is carefully regulated by the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other regulatory bodies. The amount allowed in the atmosphere is fewer than 50 ug/M3, fifty-millionths of a gram per cubic meter of air. In the summer of 1990 the EPA banned the use of mercury-containing interior latex paint after discovering that levels of mercury in the urine of occupants living in recently painted houses could reach 118 micrograms (ug) per gram of creatine, a level associated with human toxicity. Such levels could produce subtle neurological damage such as memory loss, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and tremors.

Previous experience with mercury has already demonstrated that high mercury levels in the environment could produce widespread injury to humans, as well as to wildlife. For example, between the years 1932 and 1968 in Minamata Bay, Japan, the world witnessed one of the two largest outbreaks of mercury poisoning in history. During this extended period the Chisso Factory of Minamata produced and dumped one hundred tons of mercury into the Minamata Bay in the process of manufacturing acetic acid, used in making vinyl chloride for floor tiles and artificial leather. By 1982 over 1,773 residents of the area were suffering from severe mercury toxicity, and 456 of these people eventually died. A follow-up study found that in truth over five thousand people were suffering from mercury-related neurological diseases. Most of the survivors continue to suffer severe neurological effects of the exposure.

In 1971 Iraqi officials reported that 6,530 people were severely damaged by, and 459 people died from, ingesting corn treated with a mercurial fungicide. Later, more accurate figures indicated that 50,000 people were poisoned and over 5,000 died.1 The problem began following a major drought, during which the government decided to switch to a more resistant variety of wheat ordered from Mexico. Because of a single typographical error in labeling, a fungicide containing the infinitely more toxic methylmercury had been used on the wheat. The illiterate peasants of Iraq used the wheat to make their pita breads and other cereals. Similar but smaller scale disasters occurred in Sweden, Canada, Pakistan, the United States and Guatemala.

In one tragic case of self-inflicted mercury poisoning, an ingenious fellow managed to kill himself and three family members when he attempted to smelt silver from dental amalgams in a frying pan, not knowing the "silver" was in fact mostly mercury.2 An autopsy study demonstrated severe destruction of large areas of his brain. A second similar incident resulted in the deaths of four people: mercury levels in that case were so high that the house had to be demolished.3

The reason I cite these cases is not to compare high-level mercury exposure to low-level but first, to emphasize the destructive nature of mercury on the nervous system, and second, to point out the danger caused by the American Dental Association's (ADA) refusal to publicly state that dental amalgam fillings contain a high level of mercury, and that the mercury escaping from them can cause serious harm to humans.

High-dose acute or chronic exposures were responsible for casualties in all of the cases cited above. More recently, increased scrutiny has focused on effects of chronic exposure to low levels of mercury in its various forms. You may recall that for many years scientists insisted that lead, another hazardous metal, was only dangerous following high-dose exposure: it took twenty years for medical and toxicological science to acknowledge that exposure to even minute amounts of lead could be devastating, especially to the nervous system of the developing neonate and small child. It is also important to remember that before science officially recognized the destructive effects of lead, people who tried to raise early warnings about low-level lead toxicity were ignored or labeled "alarmists" by elitists in the fields of toxicology and medical science. The same thing is now happening with mercury and those who promote the use of products containing mercury: warnings are being ignored.

Many of us are being exposed to levels of mercury that have been demonstrated to significantly affect the nervous and immune systems and other biological structures. For instance, children and adults are being exposed to mercury in a multitude of ways: through vaccines, medications, broken thermometers, antiseptics, industrial usage, contaminated fish, and dental amalgams. Mercury use is so widespread in certain industries that many workers are occupationally exposed every day to this toxic metal (see Figure 3.1). Most of us will also recall that when we were sick as children and running a fever, our parents would frighten us with stories of a horrible death if we bit into the mercury thermometer in our mouths. It was true: entire households have been poisoned when mercury from a broken thermometer was vacuumed up.

In the 1940s children began appearing in pediatricians' offices with flushed faces, pink hands that constantly shed skin, and signs of various neurological illnesses. Because of the light pink coloration of their faces and hands the condition was named "pink disease." In 1950 fifty-seven children died of the mysterious disorder. Doctors and scientists were baffled as to its cause and suggested everything from an infectious disease to food allergies. Some noted that many of its features resembled mercury poisoning, but they were ignored until it finally came to light that a teething powder used by the children contained high concentrations of mercury: when the teething powder was withdrawn from the market "pink disease" disappeared.

There now exists an enormous body of medical literature documenting the deleterious effects of chronic low-level mercury exposure. Effects of such exposure can vary significantly depending on the predominant tissue and/or organs involved, as well as other factors.

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