by Charles D. Howell Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
A young scientist stalled upon the highest
level of mercury conta~luation ever recorded. For this, he was reprimanded and lost his
job. Repeatedly, the discovery of pollution has been followed by cover-ups, suppression,
deceit, and delayed action. Mass epidemics with fatal consequences have followed from
several instances of mercury poisoning around the world. Mercury has perhaps always been
in our food and water, but the concentration of mercury is rising locally tol evels that
are lethal, or at least seriously debilitating to health. Mercury was once a wonder metal
but now is an insidious invader of food chains. We need to direct human genius to
counteract the unexpected by-products of its own creativity.
Howell was born Oct. 29, 191'`, in the slate quarry area of Pennsylvania, in E. Bangor. He
was brought OF in Brooklyn, N.Y., leaving home for Oberlin College and The Johns Hopkins
University, for baccalaureate and doctoral degrees. He is a member of Sigma Xi, and
a Fellow of the National Public Health Service. He has published papers on the development
and physiology of the heart, genetics, and more recently on problems of insect evolution.
He has taught in Universities, and Medical schools, but has been most at home in Liberal
Arts college, having spent 25 years in the Department of Biology of the University of
Redlands. His biggest jobs have been, Chairman of Premedical Advisory Committees, and
Chairman of Departments of Biology.
His motto: Retired biologists don't quit,
they re-equip and continue biologizing.
The Mad Hatter and the Sacrificial Lamms
by Charles D. Howell
An investigation by the Union Carbid Go.
in 1977 revealed that 2.4 million pounds of mercury were unaccounted for at the Oak
Ridge Rational Laboratory, where H-bombs had been manufactured. This report was
considered "Classified" information and as such was buried, while business went
on as usual. Let the sleeping dog lie'
Suspicions rankled the mind of one
employee, Stephen Gough, who finally confided in his brother, Larry who worked in a
Geological Survey laboratory where they analyze for trace metals. The two of them poked
around the woods and streams near the ORAL sampling twigs, moss, liverworts and other
organic matter. Larry took these back with him for analysis. His finding uncovered the highest
level of mercury contamination ever recorded.
For this revelation Stephen was
reprimanded by his supervisor, who also demanded the return of all samples, analysis
records, and reports. He put pressure on the Director of the Geological Survey Department,
so that no cover letter was ever made, no trace of phone call was kept, and all would
But it didn't. The two boys had talked
about the findings. The press, in the form of ~ Appalachian Observer filed a
Freedom of Information request, and the dead files were exhumed. our months later, Stephen
also lost his job. His immediate supervisor justified all these actions on the ground that Stephen's actions might damage the reputation of the laboratory, that Stephen had
not sought permission before beginning his investigation, that Stephen was unqualified for
the project he had started, and that he had involved another governmental agency without
permission. But, since the press was aware of the problem, he undertook a study of the
environment. The study not only verified the Gough's' work, but revealed even a higher
degree of pollution than they had found.
Fortunately the population below- the
laboratory was low. But the smallest still~deserve a warning. The natives had taken
turtles out of the waters there for eating, and perhaps had done more fishing than~was
suspected, The Scientists in the laboratory were not expected to fish there- they were
supposed to be too busy for such diversions. But now at least the Department of Health
posted the land as unfit for fishing. No cases of mercury poisoning turned up.
What then turned up was the fact that
between 1950 and 1963 the plant had been too busy making H-bombs,under rush orders, to
keep careful records of mercury used. The staff admitted about 100,00 pounds had gotten
away, But,not till the investigation fourteen years after the use of mercury was
terminated,was it known that 2.4 million pounds was "lost". And then it was
carefully concealed in "classified information".
The story of the firing of Stephen Gough
was made public in Science magazine, July 8, 1983, after which a great silence has been
clamped down. The Department of Health investigation revealed even more than the 2.4
million pounds was lost, and that the creek also contained PCBs, organic solvents, sad
even plutonium. The OPEN officials were careful about radiation exposure inside the plant
but obviously' didn't give a tinker's damn about the outside of~the plant.
Such lack of concern and cover-up is the
story of many instances of waste disposal around the world. Industries
resist~investigation and falsify data, governments support them and suppress information,
and when facts do turn up they are put o the back burner unless the populace involved'
persists in complaining.
Mercury poisoning is not new. It Has
recognized by Hippocrates in the 4th Century B.C. Mercury is a unique liquid metal that
also vaporizes and can be inhaled. This was discovered by Ellenberg in the 15th Century.
Students of physiology, who make a lot of use of mercury, have been cautioned down through
modern times to confine mercury to sealed jars, and to glean up all mercury Spills
meticulously. Several Chinese emperors are believed to have died of mercury poisoning.
This came about as they followed advice of a sage who claimed ingestion of mercury would
produce immortality. Seeking immortality- found instead an early grave.
Mass mercury poisoning used to occur in
mercury mines, in Spain and elsewhere. Peasants and slaves working the mines were
considered expendable. During Roman times, one death sentence consisted of
condemning a felon to work in the Spanish mercury mines. Although known for two millennia,
a complete story of the physiology and pathology of this poisoning has only been worked
out in recent years.
In 1950, Professor Tadeo Takeuchi,
pathologist of the Medical School of Kumamoto University, was called in to study some
strange diseases rampant in the town of Minamata, Japan. Symptoms in children and in
adults differed, and two different disease as were thought to be present. A stigma that
hung over the town was the record of the unusually large number of mentally retarded
children,and numbers of children with motor disturbances, thought to be due to core oral
palsy. The more serious cases came to Dr. Takeuchi's attention. Of 121 cases, 46 patients
died. Autopsies revealed depletion of granular cells of the cerebellum, and degeneration
of cerebral cortex. Poisons were sought in tissues, analyses~for metals were made, and
finally it was discovered that high concentrations of mercury were present in all cases,
in kidneys, liver and brain.
It took nine years, and in 1959 mercury
poisoning was announced as the cause of the diseases, of both children and adults. The
disease became known as Minamata Disease. It was verified experimentally by feeding
mercury-contaminated foods to rats and cats,~Ich developed symptoms like those of
children, and whose brains exhibited similar pathology.
Immediately after this was announced, 46
similar cases were recognized in a neighboring town, Tilgata, where 6 patients had died.
In both towns the people depended on fish for food, and got their fish in nearby bays. The
poorer the people, the greater the dependence on fish, and greater the incidence of
What was the source of the mercury? It was
documented that in the felt-hat making industry, hatters became queer, and the queerness
was laid to mercury used in making felt. The mad-hatter in Alice-ln-Wonderland was not a
figment of the imagination. hairs in states were devised to protect hat-makers in the 20th
C. however, other relations of industry to mercury poisoning, up to this time, were not
Above the village of Minamata was a large
industrial plant. hat went on inside that plant was a top secret. No outside investigator
was permitted inside the grounds. Every effort to obtain facts was thwarted. In fact
misinformation was supplied, sending investigators on wild goose chases. No true knowledge
of the nature of the chemical processes was obtained for five more years. The local
government supported the plant and deliberately withheld information that would
have saved years of investigation.
Finality it came to light: the plant used
mercury catalysts to produce vinylchlorlde and acetaldehyde and other things. The mercury
was in part converted into methylmercury, the deadliest fore of mercury, and was passed
out in the effluent into the stream entering the fishing grounds below the plant. This was
1964, 14 years after the people of Minimata had called on Dr. Takouchi f or help.
A few figures will demonstrate the degree
of Mercury concentration in Minamata compared with some worldwide measurements:
145 -> symptoms
500-600 -> Severe
What did the Japanese
government do about this? Under protest, in 1970, it a,reed to compensate victims who were
as poisoned in 1950, but no new cases.
Other cases of poisoning kept cropping up. Persistent complaints resulted in a trial
against a company, the Chisso Co. A judge awarded $3.5 million damage to 112 victims of
this plant, blaming irresponsible waste disposal. This company went bankrupt after an
explosion destroyed part of the plant and the government refused to loan them money to
The press exposed these facts to the
public, causing a loss of faith in eating fish. Many fish merchants went bankrupt, while
the market for red meat skyrocketed. The government suppressed reports of more poisonings,
the medical profession began to report that patients were falsifying symptoms, and laws
were passed regulating industries using mercury catalysts. Recently some astonishingly
high mercury levels have been found near industrial plants(e.g. in Toyama Prefecture),
where the local Government knew of the discharges, but kept them secret so as not to alarm
This seems to be the wrong reason for
keeping a secret. This amounts to insurance of death by default of governmental action.
The Swedish government handled mercury
poisoning in Sweden with much greater dispatch, investigating it, setting up regulations,
and monitoring the situation carefully for yours. The epidemics, although imminent, never
occurred. Here cooperation of biologists, industry and government may be ideal. There are
many places in Sweden where fish are so contaminated that fishing is banned, or people are
warned not to eat more than a certain number of fish per week from a given source. Once an
area is contaminated, no means of decontamination is practical at the present.
There are problems in North America also,
and little praise can be given to industry or the governments so far in regulating it.
Serious contamination has often been revealed only through heroic action of citizens.
One of these is Barney Lamm. He and his wife used to own a fishing lodge on Salt Lake,
Ontario. This is near the Manitoba border. Paper plants grew up on streams nearby, and
many streams became contaminated with mercury. Fishing was banned in stream after
stream, but efforts to halt the spread of contamination were fruitless. When the Lam~'s
lake became involved, they advertised, "Fish and take one home for your den, but
But the local Indians had to eat. This was
their main food source. In protest the Lamm's finally closed theirl odge, and set out to
study and carry on social action. for their concern, they became knows as the Sacrificial
Lamms. At Western Ontario University they met a Norwegian student, Norvald Fimreite, whom
they supported. Fimreite obtained a permit to collect and study fish and set to work at
once. Strangely, in the middle of his studies his permit was revoked. Fortunately he had
already sent off samples of fish for analysis , and did get back reports on the mercury
content of the flesh. These were the results:
Northern Pike --- 28 ppm of mercury
Walleyed Pike --- 20 ppm
Bass -- - 10
Burbot --- 25 ppm
These were close the the amounts found in
Minamata, where from 30-50 ppm of mercury had been found. At this time the FDA upper limit
of mercury in Tunafish was 1.0 ppm.
Research workers came from Northern
Europe, and Japan as welt as from Canada and the U.S.A. to study the situation. Minamata
disease was diagnosed among the Indians, but they were trapped. They could~escape only by
going to cities where they Joined the welfare ranks.
No one has established what might be
the maximum amount of contaminated food one could eat and still be an effective citizen.
This of course depends on how high the contamination is- An interesting case giving
some light on this did occur. It involves a 44 year old woman on Long Island, N.Y. She
came to the attention of the medical profession when she sought psychiatric help because
of psychosomatic problems, supposedly. She bias lethargic, had headaches,~and even blurred
Vision at times. This went on for two and a half years, when she began to develops
tremors, speech and motor problems and memory failure. In 1970 she went to an internist,
and then her story unraveled.
It turned out that she had been on a
reducing diet since 1964. The diet consisted of eating swordfish daily, as the main staple
of her diet. Mercury poisoning was suspected, and it was discovered that the mercury
in her blood -as six times atone normal, and her hair had 42 ppm of
mercury,~compared with normal of 2 ppm. At the time of her examination she was not at the
peak of poisoning, for she had not eaten a swordfish for five months. Her symptoms were
typical of early mercury poisoning.
About this time an accident occurred in
the lad study of mercury in Tunafish. The accident -as that a swordfish was brought to
them and tested along with Tuna. The mercury in the swordfish was high enough to be
alarming 1.3 ppm, at a time when the 'DA was hoping to justify a maximum level~of 0.5 ppm
for Tuna. This prompted more thorough studies. Mercury in swordfish WAS found to
vary from 0.93 to 2.4 pin, far higher than in Tuna.
These facts, published' along with the
case of the lady on Long Island, killed the swordfish industry overnight, contributing to
the discovery that Mercury is everywhere in our foods, and at levels once considered
prohibitive. To use the words of Dr. Gerald Gates of the University of Redlands, this is
another case of"Mankind being buried in its own garbage".
Why so much mercury? Its use has crept up
on us insidiously. We can hardly guess its content in our environment before the
industrial revolution. As long ago as 1968~twenty million pounds per year were used
worldwid, over a fifth of it in the U... 26% of it was used in the electrical industry;
23; in the chloralkali industry; 10% in paint; 10% in Industrial control
instruments; 4 % in dentistry; and 2.5% in industry as a catalyst.
In the paper industry it is used to
prevent mold and bacteria from digesting paper pulp. The contamination of our natural
streams was so bad from this that in 1965 the FD] required food packaging paper plants to
develops another means of disinfecting their products. The caustic: soda and chlorine
industry are related to paper making. Theta processes use mercury as a catalyst, so that
mercury comes to contaminate the chlorine used in swimming pool disinfection, and paper
Liquid drugs on our shelves last so long
because they~have mercurial salts in them to prevent growth of~microor~anisms. Who wants
to open a bottle of his favorite cough medicine and find it stuffed full of cottony mold?
Mercury is a necessity! No wonder we have a problem of mercury contamination all over the
civilized world. Perhaps there is something uncivil about civilization.
And I have not cited the worst case yell
Mercury is involved in the storage of grain. It is used only on seed ~rain, which needs to
be stored~and used months after it is collected. Coating the grain with mercury products
blocks microorganisms and insects. As from destroying it. It needs to be carefully marked
so that it will not be used for food. In addition to having "POISON" on
its label. Rarely in a language of a third world country) it is often dyed red as a danger
A large shipment of seed grain was sent to
Iraq in 1971-72. The Iraq government issued various warnings about it. Often the warnings
went unheeded especially by people looking for immediate food rather than seed for next
year. So they washed off the red dye, thinking that was the poison, and processed it.
Flour from it contained 8 to 9 ppm of mercury, a high level.
In other cases, the seed arrived out of
season for planting, so they fed it to their domestic animals. The animals sickened, and
were slaughtered, and processed for food and profit. More illness came from this. When
rumors of illness spread around, other people threw their grain into the Tigris River,
where it poisoned the fish. Fishermen downstream caught and ate the fish. More illness.
The epidemic of illness was so great that
the government sent to Great Britain for help. Medical terms arrived, and quickly
diagnosed Minimata Disease. The situation was panicking, radio blackouts were enforced to
'seep the information from spreading to little avail. Officially it was claimed 6,500
victims were in hospitals. Unofficial sources estimate about 60,000. 33% were children
under ten years of age. 52'% were ~-omen, many of them pregnant. 70~ of all pregnant women
died. Many victims had brain damage, or became deaf or blinds Happily, many sur~lvors
recovered, even from those severe symptoms.
This is a sad case in which plane to help
a nation in need went badly awry. 'The cause is perhaps a low level of education, perhaps
mistrust of the governmental bureaucracy. But even with education, if mercury is in the
food source you are trapped. Mercury has obviously been of the greatest value in making
possible many advances in our culture. But inventions seem to have grown faster than
investigations of their fruits.Inventors rarely even suspect the nightmares that may come
~ even innocently from beneficial uses of their inventions.
What we need now are creative inventors to
help us, as we advance, to preserve the earth from the sinister byproducts of human
D'Itri, Frank. The environmental mercury
problem. Chemical Rubber Co. Press. 1972.
D'Itri, Patricia and Frank D'ltri. Mercury
contamination:a Human tragedy. John Wiley and Sons. Interscience Publishers. 1977.
Marshall, Elio, Ed. The "lost" mercury at Oak Ridge. Science 121:130-132. July 8, 1983.
Decontamination of Mercury
The decontamination of mercury spills is
hardly satisfactory at the present. Metallic mercury is less a problem than methyl
mercury. It (metallic mercury) is a problem when handled in industrial processes in
felting hair to make felt hats. It vaporizes and is inhaled. Certain forms of organic
mercury are also volatile-- dimethyl mercy is volatile, and a process in Sweden has been
tried out to rid fish of dimethyl mercury by' volatilization. This has been done
successfully in aquaria, but not in lakes or streams.
Another clever thought, has been to find a
bacterium that could convert methyl mercury back to metallic mercury which would be heavy
and sink to the bottom, and be less available for fish. Such bacteria do exist, and have
been used. Species of genera Pseudomonas and Proteus do this, and have been
used with success~only on a small scale.
Another thought, is to "convert
mercury of spills into mercuric sulfide (HgS) of which cinnabar is an example. This is
relatively insoluble but the conditions for doing this are authentically undesirable, as
it requires anaerobic conditions with unpleasant septic odor, and growth of other
The practical process used in several
local situations is to bury a mercury deposit under heavy clay. This was done successfully
at Lake Lansing in Michigan. But in most situations the next storm washes away all the
good done by the heavy clay. In larger lake this is hardly possible to employ in the first
So the refuse of civilization remains a
problem as it refuses to go away.
A huge bibliography on mercury
exists in Zoological Abstracts. A brief reference to this resulted in finding followup
information on several cases cited in the paper. Of interest was a case of mercurochrome
poisoning-.. h child born with a herniated intestine was treated with mercurochrome for
three days as an infection seemed apparent. The child died nine days after treatment was
started. Postmortem autopsy revealed kidney poisoning, and high levels of mercury in
kidneys, liver, blood and brain.
Medical workers are following up the
problem of the Canadian Indians exposed to mercury toxicity. They point out that thiamine
deficiency flay occur in these populations because a: a restrictive diet. Thiamine
deficiency and mercury toxicity have similar symptoms at the start. The suggestion is that
alleviating thiamine deficiency may reduce the effects of mercury poisoning.
A follow-up of the Iraq epidemic for five
years included a study of prenatal mercury poisoning. This followed when the others ate
bread made from contaminated seed. The symptoms of the mothers~-ere gradually ameliorated,
but symptoms in the children -ere permanent. Nine O' thirty-to infants studied were
cerebral palsey victims. Many were victims of retarded development. Borderline cases were
identified involving exaggerated tendon reflexes and pathological extensor planter
reflexes. fill Deere permanent, up to five years after the incident.
It is recognized that the world level of
mercury contamination is rising, so establishing a pre-industrial revolution "normal" is out of the question. But efforts at establishing normals for future
reference go in in various places. One is in Borne, Italy. Here a study was made to
estimate population Averages',' and effects of diets, especially involving fish. Body
averages of mercury content were established:
Blood mercury ~ -- 0.02 ppm
Hair mercury -------- 0.51 ppm
Nail mercury -------- 1.08 ppm
The mercury content of hair was found to
be less useful for establishing population conditions, as individual habits altered it
greatly. The blood and nail contents were found to be better ~ use, and shored positive
relation to variations in mercury content of the diet. Efforts at mercury decontamination
are so far fruitless.
Prom Biological Abstracts
Amin-Zaki, L, M.A. Najeed, S.B..
Elhassail, T.W. Clarkson, M.R. Greenwood, and R.A. Doherty. (follow-up of the Iraq
incident, five years later.) Prenatal methyl mercury poisoning: Clinical observations over
a five year period. Amer. Jour. Diseases of Children Amp: 172-177. 1979
Parkas, C.S., Potential for and
mollification of thiamine deficiency in northern Canadian Indian populations affected by
mercury contamination. Ecol.Food Nutr 8: 11-20. 1979
NAS-NRC Panel on Mercury. An Assessment of
mercury in the environment. rational Academy of Sciences Publi. Office. Washington, D.C.
Pollotti, G., B. Bencivenga and T.
Simonetti. Relation of mercury in body tissues to diet. Provincial Lab. Hygiene and
Chemistry, Via Saredo 52, Rome. 1979.
Yeh, T.F., R.S. Pildes, H.V. Firor.
Mercury poisoning with mercurochrome. Clinical Toxicology. 13: 463-468. 1978.