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355

mercury

OLogy Series
geology
card
355

mercury

OLogy Series
geology

Mercury is unlike any other metal. At room temperature, it is a shimmering liquid. In nature, mercury is found as a solid in the mineral cinnabar, as well as in natural compounds. This liquid metal is used in thermometers and electronics. Pure liquid mercury gives off toxic vapors. It also combines easily with other substances to form toxic compounds. Pollution from human activity releases mercury into the air, soil, and water.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice attends a tea party hosted by a peculiar and irritable hat maker.

Author Lewis Carroll had a fantastical imagination. But the "Mad Hatter" character had a basis in reality.

At that time, many hat makers did behave strangely, leading to the term "mad as a hatter." Their odd behavior was caused by mercury poisoning.

From the 1700s through the early 1900s, hat factories used a mercury compound called mercuric nitrate. Long-term exposure to this poisonous compound led many hat makers to act as if insane or "mad." Symptoms included tremors, pathological shyness and extreme irritability.

China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, took mercury because he believed it would:

cure his illness

kill him so he could pass the throne to his son

make him live forever

Are you right?

Correct!

Emperor Qin wanted to rule China forever, and he thought mercury would make him immortal. Throughout history, medicines with mercury were taken by millions, from children's author Louisa May Alcott to the French Emperor Napoleon.

Today, people get mercury poisoning from:

getting vaccinated

eating certain fish

working in hat factories

Are you right?

Correct!

Mercury is no longer used in hat making or as a preservative in vaccines. But mercury from natural sources and from pollution ends up in oceans -- and in our seafood. Over time, mercury from contaminated seafood can build up in the body and cause mercury poisoning.

President Abraham Lincoln may have had mercury poisoning.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

Like millions in his time, Lincoln took medicines containing mercury. In the 1860s, pills with mercury were popular for conditions ranging from constipation to depression.

Pure mercury is more toxic than mercury compounds.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

In fact, mercury compounds can be more dangerous because they are more easily absorbed by the body. Just one drop of the compound dimethyl mercury can be deadly.

Chemical symbol: Hg (from the Latin word "hydrargyrum," meaning liquid silver)
Properties: dense, shiny, silver-colored metal; liquid at room temperature
Toxicity: Gives off toxic vapors; combines with chemicals to form toxic compounds
Source: cinnabar ore
Used in: thermometers, barometers, batteries
Cool Fact: Its nickname, quicksilver, originally meant "living silver."

Image credits: © istockphoto.com.