presents more of a blog variant
23 June 2005
On personal experience with mercury
My father worked 41 years for a large chemical company that instead of scholarships, gave employee sons help for college expenses by putting them to work out in the plant during semester breaks. Accordingly, after my freshman college year, and through the summers of 1966-8, I worked for what was then Allied Chemical in a mercury cell dominated part of the factory, which produced high quality chlorine gas (for water purification and bleaching) and very pure liquid caustic soda (NaOH, aka lye, primarily for use in etching circuit boards). The chlorine was the thing I worried about at the time, since everybody involved knew it as one of the poison gases used during the first World War, all too widely. It is one of the original 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', which then brought on realistic and otherwise fears. My dad, having worked with it himself, told me that I’d learn a new way to breathe out in the plant, which I thought was funny, if not impossible, but turned out to be true. For the first year, I was a night watchman, and once had to help with a guy who’d “gotten a snootful” by walking into one of the invisible pockets of more concentrated chlorine, while not paying proper attention. It wasn’t nice. Everyone wore gas masks around our necks at all times, and quickly learned to sniff slightly before inhaling deeply. If there was a touch of gas, just flip the mask up. Within a couple of weeks, it became automatic. There were a lot of chlorine leaks.
The joker awaiting, though, was the mercury, which wasn’t considered to be a serious safety threat at the time, even though one was supposed to be a little careful around it. The Solvay, NY, building was about the size of a football field, with meter (3 feet) wide metal boxes running its entire width, supported on girders one story above an open concrete floor. Each of these “cells” contained about 3 tons of mercury (as I remember it), over which ran saturated brine. Through each, 50,000 amps of electricity (at a small fraction of a volt) were carried through by the mercury, which acted as an electrolytic cathode. The results of the interaction were a particularly pure form of sodium hydroxide (a very much stronger version of household oven cleaner), chlorine, and a by-product, hydrogen gas. The latter two had to be carefully kept apart; they had gotten together at one of the company’s other plants one night, and the whole place basically vanished, very suddenly. When things were working nearer to correctly, the hydrogen was piped to another building, to be distilled with water into highly concentrated peroxide, with the 70% stuff literally to be used as rocket fuel, in another spectacularly dangerous process. The drug store version is 3%.
The magnetic fields around the cells carrying all that electricity were incredible, while the air temperature in the building I once measured to be 50° C (130° F). All originally solid metals in that awesomely corrosive environment tended to soften and break up, so that the already liquid mercury from a cell would regularly crash down to the floor below, where it would form shining pools maybe 10 meters (30 feet) in diameter and a couple of centimeters (an inch) deep to spread over the smooth, but slightly sloping concrete. Part of my job as a day laborer during my second summer was to use an ordinary water hose, whenever one of those breaks happened, to wash these toxic pools into channels cut into the floor. Wooden boxes were supposed to separate it from the washing water, which ran on into a neighboring creek, and then into Onondaga Lake.
More constantly, anyone who knows much chemistry can imagine the amount of mercury that moved into the air with a place that hot, and then into workers, including me (where it was absorbed into our bones, to keep on poisoning slowly throughout life). At the end of too many work days, my 10 Karat gold high school ring would have changed to a silvery hue from amalgamated mercury on its surface, just from what it picked out of the air. This connects to how one of mercury’s earliest uses was to separate gold from its ores, which continues where laws remain lax.
The regular crew who worked in that plant were tested weekly, leading to individuals being furloughed when the amount of mercury in their urine got to be above a certain level. This was done not out of charity, but because that threshold amount correlated with a sufficient likelihood of having become too crazy to function, even at the low level that they were expected to. Mercury, after all, is what made the mad hatter(s) that way, back when it was being used as sizing for felt, and hatters did their work with that by hand. I continue to shake my head when encountering worry now over the amount in things like thermometers. Of course, I, like many others, have big mercury amalgam fillings in my teeth, too, from the same “what, me worry?” period, but the amounts that were loose in that Solvay factory could have stuffed every cavity in America, many times over. As counterpoint, the guidelines about how mercury should be treated were discussed in an AP report, and the contemporary extreme paranoia about a spilled few drops, let alone the presence of a contained ounce in a vintage barometer, should put exposure to literally tons into deeper perspective.
Beyond the amounts creating general risks, more immediately this Solvay plant was “losing” 160 pounds of mercury a day, moving untracked into the air or water. That pissed me off at the time not yet environmentally, but because the stuff cost $500 for an 80 pound “flask”, which meant that they were wasting the equivalent of my whole summer salary every 4 days. With that, and the other stupidities I saw, it amazed me how the chemical industry ever made any money. One night, for example, a guy opened the wrong valve, and 10,000 gallons of the pure caustic went down the creek.
There were minor compensations. Carrying one of those full flasks, which were steel cylinders about the size of a 2 liter bottle of soda, but weighing a total of 40 kg (90 pounds), along the huge electrical input bars that ran open alongside the walkway, was quite entertaining. The mercury would slosh weirdly inside, and the metal canister would be strongly drawn by the intense magnetism towards the open conductor bars. I weighed all of 60 kg (125 pounds) at the time, so balance was not a trivial issue. It certainly added to my appreciation of the practical usefulness of basic physics. One could easily suspend very large steel headed hammers in mid air over the anodes, too, which we college students did for entertainment occasionally. Although the amperage was huge, and the environment damp, all that electricity wans’t instantly deadly, because its voltage was so low. One could actually touch the anode bars; they just felt warm and strange. Doing so wasn’t good for watches (and probably for nerves or other body cells), though.
The Minimata stories about catastrophic poisoning of children in Japan by an industrial plant that was very similar in construction to the one I worked in started coming out a few years later, with W. Eugene Smith’s memorable photographs. These led to the Solvay plant becoming one of the original Superfund sites, but no compensation, as far as I know, has ever been even proposed for any of us who worked there, or in its sister plants. This was only the first of the experiences that have led me to be so doubtful of government or industry protestations about how safe things are, and so critical. I won’t bore anyone with my own symptoms, which differ from those who encountered it as children, but I am very regularly reminded of this poison in my body, as are those who are around me when the anger it enhances surfaces most obviously.
PS -- 11 September 2007
The automatic flipping up of the gas mask in response to the smell of chlorine retains a residual for me, too. Learning to do it was a matter of life and death, literally, so is not readily forgotten. Meanwhile, almost all pesticides and herbicides are based on chlorine's toxicity for their activity, and the uncertainties of organic reactions means that they have measurable quantities left unreacted in their mixtures, and as they break down will free even more chlorine gas. The closely associated poisons used in silly places like lawns, or in massive quantities on our foodstuffs, may not be as immediately deadly, but cumulatively they are anything but harmless to humans, to other species, and to our planet. I still react instinctively to very small quantities, and that having become instinctive warning remains correct.
More widely, cancer and other disease responses to pesticides is yet one more by product of human impatience, ignorance, and greed. It has killed more Americans than has any form of terrorism...but little or nothing is being done to stop its toll from building further.
As I revise this site again in July 2017, just yesterday I saw yet another friend added to its toll, another very fine man whose neighbors, or perhaps even himself, thought that lawn chemicals were "safe".
PPS -- 1 November 2007 From another's, but related, perspective about smaller local quantities, "This year I spent some lazy late-summer days watching loons patrol a wilderness area lake I'd backpacked to. I should have been totally relaxed and enjoying this gorgeous and remote spot in the Adirondacks, but I couldn't help wondering if these birds had succeeded in hatching a brood, with no sign of little ones about. A friend at the Biodiversity Research Institute had told me of a paper they were soon publishing, which demonstrated the negative impacts of methyl mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest on loon behavior, physiology, survival, and reproductive success in the Northeast. The most impacted pairs David et al studied showed signs of lethargy and aberrant behavior (crazy loons), and they also "fledged" 41 percent fewer young. The birds' body burden of mercury increased 8.4 percent each year during the study." Erik Hoffner
The beating goes on: an update of an original posting on 31 January 2009
Mercury's further penetration into American's lives
Tom Philpott reported a few days ago that a problem I thought, with good reason, would have long ago been laid to rest, but instead has become actually even more invisibly pervasive. It surprised to me to find that chlorine/caustic production based on multi-ton mercury cells continues even in the United States, albeit with much more carried on in places that are even less concerned about either poisoning workers or the future. However, one of the largest users of products from this process apparently has long been polluting not just the planet, but also contaminating America's favorite sweetener, i.e., high fructose corn syrup. That inadequately nutritive stuff (another "edible food-like substance", according to Kurt Michael Friese) has thereby not just been making the country fatter, but mentally more defective, too.
The personal horror story that preceded this addition happened more than 40 years ago. How this same health destroying process would be continuing in so many locations, and would have been allowed to enter the heart of the most common food supplies, boggles the mind. When I worked in one of those manufacturing plants, the caustic was used to etch circuit boards, and that facility was closed, partly for its inherent toxicity, but not trivially its lack of profitability even without considering its effects on workers or neighbors, more than 30 years ago, in 1977.
I have linked the scientific article that Philpott pointed out about the continuing presence of chlorine-caustic production via mercury cells, along with some indications of its previously hidden presence in the food supply. If these are accurate, there will be others found, whenever someone bothers to look. There seems likely to be an awfully big puddle of sludge hidden under this rock!
Those of us who have been avoiding industrial food products have all the more reason to be thankful for our choice. Once more, taking the trouble to be more careful seems useful, even if (or perhaps because) heavy metals have been and continue to be distributed so widely by other means. Many of their exposure effects are cumulative, through lifetimes, and essentially irreversible. In nature, they were not highly concentrated, or at least not chemically unbound, and therefore unavailable to interact with living systems.
The tie to bigger problems
The primary reason, as for so many other toxins, that their inappropriate appearances have not been noticed directly is that no one has thought to look for enough of them in places like the stuff on grocery store shelves, a place particularly close to personally threating the average consumer. Again reporting from the personally observed level, I worked inside the EPA in their Washington, D.C. headquarters, looking for potential toxicity characteristics among industrial chemicals, for a couple years in the mid-1980s. From this, I can testify that at least many of the folks who work there have wanted to do more investigation and protection than they are able to, and that the amount that has been done does not even begin to touch the problems needing to be addressed.
.The stupidest of all the poisoning continues to be done by the lawn chemical industry. It pits profits that exceed the EPA's entire budgets against the diffuse probabilities from the difficult serious investigations so desperately required to protect health. Agricultural chemical and genetic manipulation profitability is yet greater, despite their failures to meet promises for crop protection (the percentage of insect and weed damage to overall production rates have remained unchanged since the 1940's) and production (GMOs consistently have proven no better and often worse than biologically legitimate methods of plant breeding). Both truths are too conveniently hidden by clever data manipulations.
Only a trivial fraction of all the almost certain poisons (including carcinogenicity) that continue to be so widely spread around have received even cursory forms of testing for their immediate consequences for ours or other species, let alone effects that can take decades to fully develop. Because lifespans have been increasing, along with some other measures of health, does not mean that either those measure could not have been better than they have been, or that those trends will continue into the future. Stupidity and greed are all too capable of trumping genuine advances in understanding.
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updated 25 July 2017
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