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Richard Ellis on ‘Diagnosis: Mercury’
Posted on Nov 28, 2008
In July, 2008, Knopf published my “Tuna: A Love Story.” I thought up the title and even designed the jacket. I was very proud of the title, until people started telling me that while it was clever, it didn’t come close to conveying what the book was about. “Tuna: A Love Story” could have been about anything: recipes, sushi, sandwiches, carpaccio, or even my reverence for the bluefin tuna, the fish whose portrait I painted for the cover. It was in fact about all those things, but upon looking at the title, no one would know that the book was also about biology, overfishing, mercury poisoning, fish-farming, the “tuna-dolphin problem,” and the possible extinction of the tuna. For the forthcoming paperback, the title has been changed to: “Tuna: Life, Death, and Mercury.”
In the original book, I discussed at some length the dangers of mercury in fish, especially tuna. I cited various studies, and concluded that while mercury is in fact poisonous to humans, the small amounts in bluefin tuna (the nominal subject of my love affair), probably wouldn’t harm anyone very much. The FDA warned pregnant women and nursing mothers against eating tuna, but everyone else could go right ahead and eat it. In fact, you probably should go right ahead and eat it, because fish is so good for you. It is an excellent source of lean protein and the omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for brain and eye development. It’s lower in cholesterol than most meats, and usually cheaper in the supermarket. The American Heart Association suggests eating at least two servings of oily fish every week to help keep your heart healthy. Bad idea.
Mercury is so pervasively dangerous that it will probably do you more harm than good to eat certain kinds of fish regularly. Mercury is expelled by the ton from coal-fired electrical plants; it’s used in extracting gold from ore; it was used in hat-making (remember the Mad Hatter?); it’s used as a disinfectant (remember mercurochrome?) it’s in amalgam dental fillings; and thousands of tons were lost into the ocean when 16th-century Spanish treasure ships sank while transporting quicksilver (mercury) in one direction or the other between South America and Europe. And it’s used in the manufacture of chlorine.
In nature, chlorine is found in a combined state only, as sodium chloride (NaCl), common salt. It is a member of the halogen (salt-forming) group of elements and is obtained from chlorides by the action of oxidizing agents and more often by electrolysis. It is a greenish-yellow gas, combining directly with nearly all elements. It is widely used in making many everyday products, most importantly, safe drinking water. It is also extensively used in the production of paper products, dyestuffs, textiles, petroleum products, medicines, antiseptics, insecticides, food, solvents, paints, plastics and many other consumer products. Chlorine is used in the manufacture of chlorinated compounds for sanitation, pulp bleaching, disinfectants and textile processing. Further applications are the manufacture of chlorates, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and in the extraction of bromine. In other words, chlorine is used everywhere, and the manufactory has long been one of the primary sources of mercury’s release into the environment.
According to a recent study by the advocacy group Oceana, there are still some factories where chlorine is still being produced in a way that “creates numerous tons of mercury wastes with associated disposal and cleanup problems, pumps up corporate electric bills, unnecessarily, and in some cases turns neighboring communities against the companies.” Oceana identifies five American chlorine plants (“the filthy five”) in Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia and Wisconsin, that have not converted to the mercury-free technology now used in caustic soda plants around the world (including 36 in Japan) to reduce mercury contamination of the atmosphere. Caustic soda (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) is an important ingredient in the pulp and paper industries: the production of textile dyes, soap, detergents, solvents and herbicides.
For hundreds of years, mercury was prescribed as a cure for syphilis, but there is little evidence that it worked; indeed, it probably hurt more than it helped. In his 1874 “Materia Medica” (a book describing the uses of various substances in medicine), Dr. John B. Biddle discussed the preparations of mercury that could be used to cure or ameliorate syphilis and various other diseases:
“While it retains the liquid or metallic state, mercury is inert; but when taken internally, it sometimes combines with oxygen in the alimentary canal, and this becomes active. In the state of vapor, it frequently proves injurious—in some instances exciting salvation, ulceration of the mouth; in others, inducing a peculiar affectation of the nervous system, termed shaking palsy (tremor mercurialis), which is often attended with loss of memory, vertigo, and other evidence of cerebral disturbance, and sometimes terminates fatally.”
Mercury was administered various ways, including orally and by rubbing it on the skin. One of the more curious methods was fumigation, in which the patient was placed in a closed box with his head sticking out; mercury was placed in the box and a fire was started under the box, which caused the mercury to vaporize. As we have seen, vaporizing mercury is one of the best ways to poison the patient. Indeed, some of the symptoms of syphilis—tremors, hearing loss, joint pain, forgetfulness and delirium—are much the same as those of mercury poisoning.
In his 1972 “History of Quicksilver,” Leonard Goldwater wrote that “The use of mercury in the treatment of syphilis may have been the most colossal hoax ever perpetrated in the history of a profession that has never been free of hoaxes.” Thus the application of quicksilver for patients suffering from syphilis gave rise to the saying, “A night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury.”
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