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This article accompanies the video of the same name below (10 mins).
Occupational mercury poisoning
Mercury is obtained from cinnabar which is mined in places such as China, Serbia, Peru, California and Alaska. The cinnabar is ground and heated with a reducing agent such as quicklime and the liquid mercury evaporates and is collected in a condensing column.
The cinnabar also yields vermillion, a red dye which has been used in arts and crafts for thousands of years and is also used as a food colouring.
Evidence of mercury mining in South America dating back to 1,400 BC has recently been found in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
Even nearly 3,500 years ago it was well known that the workers exposed to the toxic mercury fumes during mercury mining and processing contracted tremors, became blind and deaf and died from occupational exposure to this metal.
Later, both the Roman Empire and the Spanish colonists in South and Central America were to use slaves, convicts and the indigenous population to mine mercury who were known to become degeneratively ill and die shortly thereafter as a result of exposure to the toxic fumes.
The Renaissance physician, Paracelsus, described the plight of the mercury miners in central Europe in 1550. And in 1713, the Italian physician, Bernardino Ramazzini, was moved to found the discipline of occupational medicine after witnessing the devastating health effects of working with mercury as a result of such occupations as mercury mining, gilding and mirror making. He wrote:
“It is from mercury mines that there issues the most cruel bane of all that deals death and destruction to miners.”
"Very few of the gilders reach old age, and even when they do not die young their health is so terribly undermined that they pray for death”.
“Those who make mirrors become palsied and asthmatic from handling mercury ... gazing with reluctance and scowling at the reflection of their own sufferings in their mirrors and cursing the trade they have adopted”.
Ultimately, the history of mercury is intimately tied with that of alchemy and the search for the secret elixir of immortality. The ruling elite have often been alchemists and many may have unwittingly been poisoned by the mercury they used. Examples include:
Sir Isaac Newton whose hair samples were recently analysed and showed 25 times the levels of mercury considered normal.
The English King Charles II, who experienced personality changes late in life and death from kidney failure and it is now thought likely that these were due to mercury poisoning.
Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China, built a vast city in 259 BC which contained a scale model of China with rivers and lakes made of mercury of which the famous terracotta army is just one small part. The rest of the site remains too toxic to excavate to this day due to heavy mercury contamination. Many of the 700,000 labourers involved in the construction of this massive building project are believed to have lost their lives to mercury poisoning and the remainder were executed to prevent them telling of the great riches held there. The Emperor too also died aged 49 of the mercury pills he was taking for immortality.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury-based compounds were used to treat pelts in the hatting industry. Known for their tremors and psychiatric illness, the term ‘mad as a hatter’ arose and was probably the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in Alice in Wonderland.
Although the use of mercury has been phased out or banned in some industries, it is still widely used in the production of gold, tin, cement, steel, batteries and explosives and in laboratories and hospitals.
Click to watch part 1 and part 2 of Mercury Poisoning and Gold Mining.
Environmental mercury poisoning
When it comes to environmental mercury poisoning, two of the most infamous examples took place in Japan.
The first incident was in the 1950s in the small fishing village of Minamata. First animals and then humans were stricken with a disabling condition including uncontrollable tremors, paralysis and then death. Eventually the cause was identified as being methyl mercury waste that had been pumped into the bay by the Chisso corporation which manufactured fertilisers. This organic mercury was bioaccumulating and bioconcentrating up the food chain to affect the animals and humans who ate the contaminated fish.
Fifteen percent of the population of Minamata either died or were permanently paralysed, and many of the younger women who appeared unaffected, subsequently went on to have children with serious disorders.
A later similar incident involving the Showa corporation at Niigata which also manufactured agricultural chemicals killed and disabled many thousands more innocent people. For more about these disasters please refer to the video Minamata Disease.
Mercury is also used as a fungicide on grain and seeds and in the 1970s mercury treated grain intended for planting was eaten by starving Kurdish peasants in the north of Iraq. This incident led to an estimated 6,000 deaths and 100,000 people injured.
The larger carnivorous fish such as tuna or shark are recognised to be a major source of methyl mercury contamination. And in December 2008, the American actor Jeremy Piven pulled out of a run on Broadway after being diagnosed with mercury poisoning from eating sushi regularly for twenty years. For more information see Toxins in the Oceans and/or Mercury Contamination: Which Tuna?
Mercury poisoning in science
There is a history of scientists who handle mercury being poisoned too. Notable examples include:
Sir Michael Faraday, who lost his memory and had a nervous breakdown.
Alfred Stock, a German inorganic chemist, who was poisoned by the mercury he handled and spent the rest of his life trying to raise awareness of the issue.
Karen Wetterhahn, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth college, New Hampshire who died in 1997 just a few months after spilling a few drops of methylmercury on her latex glove in spite of aggressive chelation treatment.
Mercury in medicine and dentistry
Doctors throughout history have used mercury as a medicine. It was used as a purging agent to induce vomiting and diarrhoea (as any potent toxin will) and mercury-containing lotions were also applied directly to the skin.
Those who are known to have suffered and/or died from mercury poisoning at the hands of their physicians include:
Amadeus Mozart who died of the mercury cure he was given for syphilis.
Ludwig van Beethoven whose deafness and death are thought to have been due to heavy metal poisoning including mercury.
Napoleon Bonaparte whose hair analysis has revealed high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic.
Abraham Lincoln whose erratic moods and insomnia are thought to have been due to the mercury medicine 'blue mass' he was taking for depression.
The English King George III who ended up blind, deaf and insane.
The mother and wife of Ivan the Terrible, the first Russian Tsar who were both poisoned with mercury according to recent analysis of their remains.
More recently, Russians including Alexander Lebedev and the lawyer Karinna Moskalenko claim to have been victims of attempted assassinations using mercury.
A disease known as acrodynia or pink disease involving burning redness of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet and terrible rashes and distress afflicted a lot of infants in the first part of the twentieth century. Eventually the cause was identified as being Calomel, a mercury-containing teething powder and the products were withdrawn just 60 years ago. For more on this topic, please refer to the video Mercury Poisoning: Acrodynia or Pink Disease.
An organic mercury preservative, thimerasol, is still being used in a great many vaccinations. This is of particular significance as the number of recommended or mandatory vaccinations now numbers several dozen – many of which are given to tiny babies and small children.For more information please refer to the videos listed under Mercury & Medicine in the Video Hub or to the podcast interviews with Mary Tocco or Rebecca Carley listed under Mercury & Medicine in the Audio Hub.
Our long and tortured history of using mercury in medicine and dentistry means that there is probably not a person unaffected by this issue to some greater or lesser extent in the developed world. This is because a significant proportion of the the mother’s toxin burden is passed to her child in the womb and breast milk and so the mercury along with other toxins is passed down the generations.
Sadly, 3,500 years after recognising the deadly toxicity of mercury and its compounds and probably millions of lost and destroyed lives later, we still do not seemed to have learned our lesson when it comes to this highly toxic metal.
"Give nonsense a good head-start with Tradition and Habit cheering it from the sidelines, and if you think Reform can catch up with it inside of two or three thousand years or more, your opinion is contrary to experience."
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A History of Mercury Poisoning: Article summary
This article accompanies a video examining the history of environmental and occupational mercury poisoning and intentional and unintentional mercury poisoning in medicine and science.
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The Natural Recovery Plan Newsletter July 2011 Issue 19. Copyright Alison Adams 2011. All rights reserved Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach www.thenaturalrecoveryplan.com