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Halloween; All Hallow's Eve. Ghosts and witches, creepy spiders and black cats! Lots of science fun in them there legends, some of which I will be exploring the month of October in Science Friday. Mrs. DarkSyde of course doesn't much care about the hard science, but she is one of those who loves fantasy sci-fi: Especially Lord of the Rings type novels. So choice of costume is, needless to say, a topic of great import here at DarkSyde Manor. Meaning I'm stuck with playing a supporting role to whatever strikes her theatrical fancy.

Sadly, Lady DS was struck with one of the worst fevers she's ever had on Hallow's Eve 2004. She never got to show off her threads. So 'we' decided that we'd use the same attire this time. I was told to get the costumes together yesterday, and discovered a problem with mine. A twist most interesting, oddly coincidental, and deliciously scientific, given my assigned Halloween character. I was eager to share all that history and science with my better half. Alas, once again, I was waved off by The Hand of Spousal Boredom. And here I am ...

( Science Note- This Sunday, watch Duncan Black interview Dr Paul Myers on EvolveTV. Subject: Intelligent Design Creationism)

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Cinnabar crystals under low power magnification

Lost in the mists of prehistory, thousands of years ago, a reddish substance became all the rage in Eurasia. The amazing mineral was a source of dye, came in cool crystalline form, and quickly became a source of fascination among natural philosophers. Samples have been found in Egyptian and Chinese tombs dating well before the Christian Era. It was called cinnabar.

The Greek philosopher Empedocles formulated a forerunner of the periodic table in which substances were made out of various combos of fire, air, earth, or water. Seems quaintly inaccurate nowadays. But think of it as a cogent attempt to categorize the fundamental states of matter -- solid, liquid, gas, and plasma: Not a bad try for someone stuck in the fourth century BC! Empedocles' idea persisted until the advent of modern chemistry and is still around today in vestigial form as classifications used in astrology.

Early Mediterranean City-states valued cinnabar as a semiprecious stone and cosmetic pigment, and soon learned to isolate another wondrous enigmatic material from it. The new substance was both a liquid and a metal--water and earth! Early natural philosophers felt it held the secret to transmutation of metals making it the key to wealth beyond dreams, the so called 'philosophers stone'. Today we know it as an element with the chemical symbol Hg reflecting the ancient name, Hydrargryum, meaning watery or 'living' silver. Thus it came to be known in the western world as 'quicksilver'. But hydrargyrum is more commonly called Mercury today.

A shiny metal that flows like water; Elemental mercury is just plain fun to play with! Quicksilver has such a peculiar blend of properties that it played a prominent role in early alchemical experiments of all kinds. And of course some of those early alchemists also ran a lucrative con on the side, in which they would try and convince the rich that they were on the verge of being able to make unlimited quantities of gold from lead or tin. Mercury was usually involved in a sleight of hand scam where small amounts of precious metals would appear after an exhaustive, technologically dazzling presentation: Followed by a plea for investment capital to 'make the process economical and you richer than the Vatican M'Lord!" And off the alchemists would be to fleece the next credulous and greedy Nobleman. In addition mercury was used in beds and other items adorning the chambers of opulent halls from Europe to Persia.

It was the Romans who found that exposure to cinnabar came with a few, shall we say, drawbacks? Laborers in those mines lived on average for two or three years before succumbing to a variety of symptoms including termors, extensive skin rashes, breathing problems, dementia, intense pain similar to Kidney stones and on and on. In the end the pitiful victims were sometimes stark raving crazy, babbling to themselves incoherently and shrieking at paranoid hallucinations while twitching uncontrollably and soiling themselves. Not a pretty sight and not the way anyone would want to go out. A sentence to the cinnabar mines meant lingering death, sometimes even for the unfortunate Roman guards.

Mercury poisoning it seemed could drive a person insane and afflict the poor bastard with a hodgepodge of unpleasant ailments along the way. During the Dark Ages and medieval era perhaps this caveat was forgotten or ignored: Early alchemists used their sense of taste as an analytical tool, ingesting minute bits of all kinds of nasty substances. So odds are mercury and other heavy metal poisoning likely contributed to the archetypical mad-scientist meme immortalized in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I doubt it did much for the mental health of several Spanish Lords who proudly bragged they slept on a mercury/water bed either.

Right around the same time unscrupulous alchemists were extracting the last precious coins from the Mafia-like Crime Syndicates who ran feudal Europe, others began to find real uses for quicksilver. One of the first was Evangelista Torricelli, a student of none other than Galileo Galilee. Torricelli's invention is something any red-blooded American kid can understand: I bet every one of you at one time or another trapped liquid in a straw by dipping it in your glass and capping one end with your thumb ... And I bet a bunch of you withdrew that straw, admired the antigravity trick, and then spewed the liquid at your siblings and friends! Ahh the innocence ...

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Left: The water trick every kid knows. Right: The finger cap is replaced with a sealed top, the water is replaced with mercury, the plastic straw is replaced with a glass tube: The child's trick becomes a mercury barometer

Well, it turns out that there is a limit of about 33 feet in how much water you can hold that way. Few straws are forty feet long of course so it doesn't affect the run-of-the-mill mischievous kid. But it was a big problem for early miners because they couldn't just suck the water out using a single pipe if it was more than 33 feet underground. The reason you're stuck with that limit is because it takes a column of water that tall to equal the weight of the atmosphere at sea level.  Torricelli realized that mercury was more practical to use than water because it was over dozen times heavier and thus it would take a much shorter 'straw' to play around with in the laboratory. And the space at the top of the tube was the first hard vacuum ever created in the laboratory; now called a Torricellian Vacuum.

Today we make marks on that glass 'straw' of mercury and call it a barometer. The barometer measures pressure by how much that column varies from time-to-time as read in inches (Or millimeters) on the tube, or measured using a ruler. The unit most often used now is a millibar; One millibar is defined as one dyne per square inch and the average pressure at sea level is about 1013.25 millibars or 14.7 pounds per square inch. When you see storm meteorlogists Steve Gregory and Jeff Masters quoting a pressure of 950mb for hurricane X, they're talking millibars.

Over the years more uses were found for mercury: As a preservative for lumber, an amalgam for precious metals and fillings, and more recently in wide spread electronics applications. Until a few years ago mercury was also used as a preservative in childhood vaccination formula leading to a fierce debate in the medical community over the role mercury may play in the onset of juvenile autism (The latter is particularly confusing for me: Experts I trust from both sides make what sound like solid arguments and each calls the other guy's talking points total nonsense, on the same level as Young Earth Creationism). Today mercury is used in over 3,000 industrial processes. And therein lays the rub.

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Mercury compounds are released from various industries into the environment where they accumulate at the base of the food chain and become more concentrated as they move up through it

Most incidents of severe mercury poisoning stem from inhalation and ingestion of mercury methylates. And by far most of those pollutants come from the burning of fossil fuels and incineration of materials containing mercury compounds, producing a double whammy for us human critters.

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Humans at the top of the food chain ingest the products with the highest accumulations of all

Whether released by fossil fuel or the incineration of waste, the airborne emissions eventually settle onto the surface. There they undergo a dangerous concentration process in plant and animal tissue as they progress up through the food chain, and we directly ingest them via air and water adding to the mercury levels gained from other sources. In particular fish is a source of concern. Humans consume few top land predators. Tiger and bear fillet is a rarity on the dinner menu at DarkSyde Manor. But much of the fish we eat are the large predatory critters at the top of the marine or fresh water food chain, such as Salmon. For this reason fish is of particular concern and mercury levels need to be monitored closely in those items. Some people are more prone to mercury poisoning than others. But anyone who consumes or ingest a relatively small quantity will, sooner or later, exhibit the full adverse consequences of the concentrated mercurial toxins including damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, and just about everything else.

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Each tiny dot represents a lesion. The earlier in life and the longer the individual is exposed, the greater the brain damage. This data was first obtained from victims of Minamata Disease: So-named because it was originally diagnosed among residents of Minamata, Japan, in the 1950s after a factory dumped tons of mercury waste into the nearby bay over several decades.

Given the documented and horrific effects of mercury on adults, children, and developing fetuses, starting thousands of years ago and since recorded in gruesome clinical detail, naturally our government is concerned enough to ... buahahahah! Sadly, no.

Until last year methyl mercury emissions were almost unregulated. After an almost ten-year long legal battle waged by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the EPA was finally forced to issue updated mercury emission regulations starting in January of 2004. The new policy was announced with great fanfare by Lawmakers -- with no mention that most of them dragged their feet at every step for decades and were practically forced at gunpoint to comply with the ruling.

Among a number of controversial provisions, the anemic regulations in the so-called Clear Skies Act allow the worst mercury polluters to trade or buy 'mercury credits' with those that do not emit mercury or do not exceed limits mandated by the EPA. The allowable limits are a topic of intense criticism anyway and the usefulness of the trading loophole is questionable; it practically guarantees localized mercury levels well in excess of dangerous amounts. The idea that some far away county is below allowable levels would likely be of little comfort to those suffering from mercury poisoning: Not to mention even these existing rules don't fully kick in for over a decade!

And if that prospect isn't scary enough to jump-start this Halloween Science theme, the tactics used by right-wing shills to deny, obfuscate, and flat out lie about the danger poised by mercury pollution are ghastly in their own right. Science writer Chris Mooney points out in his book The Republican War on Science:

... environmentalists may have shaded the evidence their way, [but] they have hardly concocted a problem from whole cloth. Mercury pollution does present a real and severe threat, especially to infants and children. Compare environmentalists' crimes to the right-wing Wall Street Journal's declaration, apparently on the basis of information from one industry-funded think tank, that there is 'no credible science showing America faces any health threat at all from current fish consumption.' Greens may twist information now and again, but they can hardly match this blatant denial ...

Most of us know elemental mercury from the silvery strip in our childhood friend -- and ticket to getting out of school for a day -- the thermometer. Which brings me back to Mrs. DS and her Alice in Wonderland get-up. It was a precious outfit she put together out of a set of old white drapes with fringe on them and a few assorted dresses that have seemingly 'shrunk' over the years; ahem. She was really excited, like she is every year, to answer the door and hand out doses of glucose in her costume to the all the young ghouls and goblins that come knocking.

But that morning she came down with a fever and by evening she was laying on the couch moaning in delirium, halfway dressed in her cute little ensemble. I spent the night alternating between answering the door to fork over confectionary treats and taking her temperature--which was flirting with 'dash to the ER' levels. Her fever eventually broke and we put our costumes away for another day. But when I was going through them for this next round I found where I had put that thermometer: It was broken in my Halloween pants pocket. And, I have no desire to become what I was going as.

You see, those olden days of industrial drudgery that produced Lewis Carroll and his subterranean Alician fantasies gave rise to many other, much less endearing, realities. Chief among them was mercury poisoning. Clothiers for example used cloth by the bolt-load that was produced in part using mercury nitrate. Before stiffer restrictions came into effect, Felt in particular was sometimes so contaminated with the stuff that some workers and tailors who used it went barking-at-the-moon insane. That included headwear, drape, dress, and suit makers. The slow descent into full blown paranoid lunacy along with the twitchy mercury tremors and shakes among apparel producers and established couturiers of the era was well known in the nascent fashion industry, and a number of colorful idioms crept into everyday language reflecting this. One of those stereotypes even made an appearance in Alice's Looking Glass world. And, had I absorbed enough mercury from that broken thermometer through my skin by way of my baggy green pants pocket, I could have ended up playing the Mad Hatter for more than a single evening on Halloween.


Originally posted to DarkSyde on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 04:02 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  You totally rock Darksyde. (none)
    Every single diary of yours I see, I immediately read with eager anticipation.
  •  DS can you comment (none)
    on the idea of there being an "acceptable" amount of mercury in human diet? For practical purposes, I believe such a construct exists, but is any amount really acceptable? Given synergies with god only knows what. Great post as usual.

    -7.88, -7.74 In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. -- MLK

    by melvin on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 04:18:16 AM PDT

    •  Some (4.00)
      folks are more susceptible than others. In some cases because they genetically lack a key ability to expunge the shit and in some cases like any other allergic/sensitivity to it. If the lawmakers just came out and said something like "Look, we're not sure exactly where the cutoff is for everyone and there may not be a safe limit. But level X seems to be relatively safe and allowing this much will preserve or produce jobs ... ". But instead the wingers in particular bend the science and flat out lie just like they do about creationism or global warming. Jesus apparently loved mercury ...

      Read UTI, your free thought forum

      by DarkSyde on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 04:24:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  A complicated question. (none)
      Even without politics.

      First, we have to decide what is an 'acceptable' effect: is a 1% chance of an adverse affect acceptable?  0.001%?  0.0000001%?  Often times, the goal is reducing the risks from exposure to any one contaminant to 1:100,000 or 1:1,000,000.  These are calculated on populations; risks for individuals can vary to a large extent as noted above, based on quirks of metabolism and so on.

      Second, what are the adverse affects?  Are we looking at short-term or long-term effects?  It is relatively easy to idetify something like cancer, but effects that have a range in their strength make it more difficult.  When has someone's intellect been affected by mercury exposure?  When they have  a 1% decrease in performance on some test? 5%? 20%?  

      Finally, a related question: is there a exposure below which the risk is truly zero?  Maybe.  One possibility is that no matter how low your exposure, you still have risk.  It may be vanishingly small, but it is still there; of course, you wouldn't worry about a 1:1 trillion risk.  Another possibility is that there is some level below which all the contaminant can be safely removed from your body, with truly no risk.  Imagine you have a village with 10 dog catchers.  If one stray dog per day comes into the village, it will be caught and the village cats are safe.  But if there are 200 stray dogs per day, the dogcatchers are overwhelmed and the cats have a high chance of being dog food.

      A sad real world example can be found here
      It appears there is a level of mercury exposure below which there is no effect: but maybe we just can't measure that effect.  A one in one hundred effect wouldn't be seen on the low end of that graph, but I, for one, would find that unacceptable.

      So when we ask, is there an acceptable amount of mercury in the diet? - that is a more complicated question than it seems at first.  We need to know what the harm is, how it relates to the amount of mercury, and we need to decide what an acceptable risk is.  None of these questions is easy to answer with a high amount of certainty, although the information for mercury is much, much better than many other contaminants.

  •  Short-sighted Morons (none)

    It never ceases to amaze me how right-wingers and Big Business types dismiss the scientific evidence of the effects of various kinds of pollution-- as if the baby Jesus or their stock portfolios will save them and their kids from poisoned water, air, and soil. If anyone deserves The Intrusive Plunger of Doom, its those guys...

    As long as the prerequisite for that shining Paradise is ignorance, bigotry, and hate... I say the Hell with it. --Inherit the Wind

    by kingubu on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 04:45:11 AM PDT

  •  well told (none)
      almost totally off topic . find a copy of the satire of  "Lord of the Rings " for Mrs Darksyde. it is by the  Harvard Lampoon  titled "Bored of the Rings". it is about 30 years old  but has been reprinted not too long ago  

    O world,no world,but mass of public wrongs,confused and filled with murder and misdeeds

    by Brian B on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 05:31:01 AM PDT

    •  I'd almost forgotten (none)
      about GoodGulf and Serutan and Sorehead and Tim Benzedrine and...

      Really funny stuff.

      "Ask a glass of water"

      by Del in MO on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 05:39:48 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Us oldtimers... (none)
        can remember brand names like "GoodGulf". But young whipper-snappers might not get the humor.

        However, Frito (and Dildo) still live on!

        BTW, I still have an old copy of "Bored of the Rings" somewhere. Now I must dig it out and read it again.

        "I was so easy to defeat, I was so easy to control, I didn't even know there was a war."

        by RonV on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 05:47:36 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  QWERTY (none)
          An elven king there was of old,
          Saranwrap by name,
          Who slew the narcs at Mellowmarsh
          And Sorehed's host did tame.


          Frightened were the chicken dwarves
          but mickle crafty too.
          King Yellowback, their skins to save,
          the elves did try to woo.


          So to this day it's said by all
          In ballad, lay, and poem:
          "Never trust an elf or dwarf
          As far a you can throw'em."

          Dang!  I wish I could remember the rest. Too bad I haven't seen it since 1980, BotR made a powerful impression on my juvenile mind.

      •  ...and... (none)
        Legolam, and Arrowroot, son of Arrowshirt, and the dread Ballhog!

        If you vote Republican, you vote for corruption.

        by MN camera on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 07:15:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Wonderul diary, as usual, (none)
    and it makes yet another argument for renewable energy, since the vast majority of mercury comes from burning coal or garbage.

    Since the global warming argument is evidently not enough.

    Plus, interesting Mad Hatter link that recalls a time when the federal government tried to protect people from poisonous workplaces.

    The Republicans want to cut YOUR Social Security benefits.

    by devtob on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 06:51:52 AM PDT

  •  Even Isaac Newton... (none)
    ...went "mad as a hatter" (hatters used mercury to shine up their creations) because of his alchemical hobbies, which may have even included drinking mercury to help treat his symptoms of, well, probably mercury poisoning. opt=Abstract

    And don't forget Neil Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" trilogy, in which "quicksilver" and Newton both play prominent roles:

  •  Most excellent (none)
      diary, Darksyde. Awareness is our key to understanding.  So far the much of the American public is choosing to be oblivious.  Or to think the trade off for using pollutants is acceptable.  This extends to nearly all biological / ecological subjects.  One wonders just when the price of ignorance will become too high.
  •  Minamata (none)
    Here is a link to one of the most famous photojournalistic portfolios of all time.  W. Eugene Smith nearly paid with his life for this heartbreaking series, much of which ran in Life Magazine.  

    One of the true titans of the art.  We could use a few more.  Here is one.

    If you vote Republican, you vote for corruption.

    by MN camera on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 07:28:22 AM PDT

  •  Wonder if you can explain (none)
    how we go from cinnabar red crystals to silver fluid.

    Also, any danger in antique Cinnabar art objects?


    Fighting them here, so we don't have to fight over there.

    by NorCalJim on Fri Sep 30, 2005 at 07:30:22 AM PDT

  •  Your Book (none)
    I know you are investigating a book deal, I strongly urge you to consider syndicating your work to newspapers around the country.  The style, length and content are perfect (or easily made so) for a weekend spot.  Maybe that will get you the exposure needed for a major breakthrough.

    Keep it up, you are one of our superstars!  Have they invited you to present at the Yearly Kos convention yet?

    •  Sorry, as a 12-year veteran ... (none) Executive Editor of what was once the No. 4 syndicate in the U.S., newspaper syndication of this sort of thing is dead. Not moribund, dead. Sad, pathetic, disappointing, but true. Don't waste your time. Even if you were to get a contract - unlikely - you'd be lucky to get into half a dozen newspapers.

      Thirty-one million new blogs are created each year. Try ours at The Next Hurrah.

      by Meteor Blades on Sat Oct 01, 2005 at 01:23:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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