Image of Toxic Liquid Mercury Being Spilled

Liquid Mercury Is Deceptive-and Dangerously Toxic
Courtesy: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/ commons/9/99/Pouring_ liquid_ mercury_bionerd.jpg

When I Was 9 Years-Old, I Thought It Was Fun To Play With Mercury

What did I know as a 9 year old? I thought it was safe to play with mercury. I found an old thermometer that I could break to get to the mercury inside.  My friends and I thought it was pretty cool because the broken glass just floated right on top. If you pushed your finger into the ball of mercury it would spring back to its original shape as soon as you lifted your finger.

If you dropped the ball it would splatter but you could push the little beads of liquid mercury back together. I also heard you could rub the mercury on a copper penny and it would stick to it and make it look like a nickel or dime. I tried it. It worked. Now I started scheming.

That Mercury Isn’t Safe To Play With, Hand It Over

Wouldn’t it be fun to take into the local drug store and see if I could buy candy bar with my new “dimes”. It didn’t work; the store clerk had seen this trick before. Oh well, I thought it was worth a try. I put the mercury in a little glass vial, screwed on the lid and put it in my pocket. When I got home I showed my dad and he said, “it isn’t safe to play with mercury, hand it over”. So that ended my playing with mercury. Fortunately, when we did play with mercury we never brought it inside our homes.

Mercury Is Considered An Industrial Toxin

Many years later I discovered how toxic mercury really was. It was in high school that I discovered how important a healthy respect for the toxicity of mercury was. It could kill people. In college it was made quite clear to me that in industrial processes, mercury was handled quite differently from something considered safe.

Later, in a prestigious dental school, my dental school instructors told me that mercury in dental fillings was safe. That was a complete contradiction. I realized that they were just telling me that because it was what they had heard from their dental school instructors. Inbreeding of this type can perpetuate fact and fiction. It’s not their fault; they were just repeating what they knew to be factual.

Let Me Tell You A Story About A Family Of Six

The guilty party was a 12 year-old daughter. She was feeling ill and was taken by her parents to a family physician. Over the last four weeks she complained about pain, her joints hurt, her muscles hurt, she was having tremors, she was having chills her hands and feet felt cold, she had a fever and and now she was losing weight.

Her doctor had no clue what was going on at this point so he treated her with a shot of penicillin and aspirin and thought it was rheumatic fever. The aspirin didn’t help and neither did the penicillin so he tried non-aspirin pain relievers but her symptoms got worse.

Pink Disease-An Acute Mercury Exposure

The doctor thought more about her symptoms and asked the parents if it was possible that their daughter could have been exposed to heavy metals of any kind. Both the daughter and parents said no at first. The 12 year-old daughter’s hands and feet had a dark pink color. She was diagnosed with acrodynia or Pink disease (an acute mercury exposure).

After three days on antibiotics she still had a fever, severe muscle pains and skin peeling off her hands. The doctor asked again if it was possible that she was exposed to mercury. She finally admitted six weeks ago she brought liquid mercury home from school. She and her siblings played with it extensively. It turns out that they spilled some on the carpet and adjacent furniture in their bedroom. They did not know that it is almost impossible to cleanup. A vacuum cleaner just makes it worse. It’s just not safe to play with mercury.

A Diagnosis Of Mercury Intoxication

The doctor stopped the antibiotics and she was immediately hospitalized with a diagnosis of mercury intoxication. The doctor immediately placed her on a chelation medication routine for 14 days. (Chelation is a treatment used to help remove the toxic metal from the body by using a drug that grabs onto the metal and allows the metal-drug combination to be excreted by way of urine or feces.) But her symptoms persisted. He put her on a second round of chelation therapy to see if this would help. And at her follow-up visit her symptoms finally started to decrease. Her doctor then asked for assistance from the hospital psychiatry department because her behavior had also changed and she was becoming increasingly aggressive.

Thankfully the local health department sent workers to clean and detoxify the inside of the family home as soon as the girl’s diagnosis of mercury intoxication was made.

Her Brother And A Sister Developed Delayed Symptoms

Seven days after the 12 year-old daughter was initially treated with antibiotics, her brother and a sister developed similar symptoms. They also had muscle pain, chills, skin peeling off their hands and blisters on their skin. The brother and sister had tremors and swelling when they were awake. As they slept the tremor went away. It turns out that the three siblings, the 12 year-old daughter and her brother and sister all slept in the room where the mercury was spilled. Which increased their exposure to the toxic fumes coming from the mercury.

The 12 year-old daughter’s mother and father and one and a half-year-old brother, who all slept in a different room, did not have any obvious symptoms. Their exposure was lower than those sleeping in the room with the mercury spill.

All three siblings were treated with the same oral chelation therapy to treat acute mercury toxicity. The three exposed children received an evaluation by the psychiatric department for changes in behavior. And all of this was totally avoidable if care was exercised by her schoolteacher to educate students about the toxicity of mercury used in their science laboratory and the risks associated with handling mercury.

Mercury Is Quickly Absorbed Into Other Tissues

The downside of the story is that just because the symptoms subsided it didn’t mean that mercury did not do long term damage. Mercury tends to stay in the body for years to decades.  It creates a long-term risk for immune system problems, brain and neurologic system problems and kidney problems. Mercury also does not stay in the blood for long as it is quickly absorbed into other tissues.  So blood levels of mercury only show very recent acute exposure. It goes into hiding.

It’s difficult for a physician to make a diagnosis of acute mercury poisoning because many of the symptoms are so similar to infections, neurologic diseases, drug reactions, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and psychological stress. The delay in symptoms of the 12 year-old daughter’s siblings mimicked an infectious disease outbreak.

I cannot state strongly enough that you, as a parent, make sure that your children’s educators, teachers, aides, and science laboratory supervisors are aware of the hazards of playing with liquid mercury. You should never experience what this family experienced.

(Source: Eur J Pediatr (2011) 170:397–400)