A to Z Challenge: M (poisons & stories of their use)


Fast Facts:
– Naturally occurring heavy metal
– ‘Hg’ on the periodic table (atomic no.80)
– Used in car batteries and thermometers
– Low levels not particularly toxic to adults and harmless if touched
– Inhaled vapour attacks the brain and lungs
– The cause of the Iraqi poisoned grain disaster
– Suggested as a possible cause of death of Mozart (used to treat his syphilis)

Mercury is a heavy metal which is commonly used in thermometers, car batteries and as a cure for syphilis. Touching mercury is harmless, however deadly if ingested or inhaled – which is problematic as it starts to turn into a gas at room temperature. Mercury is found in large fish (such as tuna) and can be potentially deadly over time, which is why restricting consumption to 170g per week is recommended.

Symptoms include rashes, muscle weakness, memory loss, numbness and issues with sight, hearing and speech. The later stages result in excessive sweating, rapid heart-rate, hypertension and eventually death.

One of the first Hollywood scandals that was heavily publicised, in 1920, involved American silent film actress, Olive Thomas. She died five days after taking her husband’s syphilis medication, mercury dichloride. While her death was ruled accidental, it became fodder for media speculation.

From: Wikipedia

In late 1971 a mass poisoning began in Iraq lasting until March 1972. Grain treated with fungicide methylmercury, intended for planting and not human consumption, was imported into Iraq from Mexico and the USA. A number of factors, such as the labelling of bags in Spanish and English, or skull and crossbones, which didn’t mean anything to Iraqis and the late distribution to farmers (outside of the growing cycle) meant rural families consumed the grain instead of planting it. The grain had been dyed a pink, but while the dye washed off, the mercury didn’t. Locals experienced skin numbness, lack of coordination of muscle movement and vision loss. The recorded death toll was 459 people, but figures up to ten time higher are suggested.

An organometallic compound of mercury (dimethylmercury) is one of the world’s strongest neurotoxins. Symptoms don’t appear for months after exposure, and it only takes as little as 0.1mL to be lethal. On 14 August 1996, a professor of chemistry, Karen Wetterhahn, spilt a drop of dimethylmercury on her latex-gloved hand. She took necessary precautions, but in April 1997 she began to experience poisoning symptoms (slurred speech and loss of balance). As her symptoms worsened she slipped into a coma and seemed to develop a resistance to pain. The mercury ate at her brain “like termites” according to her doctor. She ended up in a vegetative state and died ten months after exposure.


18 comments on “A to Z Challenge: M (poisons & stories of their use)

  1. How scary that of all people a professor of chemistry became a victim of mercury poisening!

    When I was a kid and didn’t feel like going to school one day, I faked being sick. Mom brought me tea and a thermometer, and I thought it’d be a clever idea to “up” my temperature by dipping the thermometer into the tea. Suddenly I had a fever, haha! I used it like a spoon to stir my tea, and I must have done so too vigorously because it burst!!! There were lots of mercury drops in my tea, and it looked kind of fun, but I also knew it was dangerous, so I had to own up…

    I can’t even remember what my Mom’s reaction was.


    • Oh, wow! At least you didn’t try to drink it… Your Mum can’t have been too angry because I think you’d remember then.

  2. Giggling Fattie

    April 15, 2021 at 9:25 pm

    Oh my goodness! The professor still died even though it didn’t touch her😱 eeeppp so scary!

    • Scary stuff. Sad she was an expert and that’s what killed her. I wonder if there was any point when she knew what was happening and what was going to happen?

      • Giggling Fattie

        April 16, 2021 at 9:52 pm

        Oh goodness maybe? But I guess it’s always a risk. Especially when working with chemicals that turn into vapours at room temperature. So sad

  3. That’s some scary stuff!

  4. To think that we used to play with it in younger, dumber days.

    The HEPA filter found in so many vacuum bags now was originally designed as a Hg clean up product. It started with broken fluorescent tubes and later got used for the real, pure thing.

    • I knew vacuum cleaners etc were a fortunate use for HEPA filters, but I didn’t realise Hg was their original purpose.

  5. Stories of Mercury poisoning have always freaked me out!

  6. Mad as a hatter. Mercury fascinates me, but I’m rather afraid of it now. Amazing that hat makers used to use it so much.

    • And that it took until the 1940’s before it was banned in hat making. You know, I must be a bit slow, because I hadn’t put it together that that’s where the saying came from.

  7. The Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland is mad for a reason. Scary that it was used as a tool.

    Radium used to be used for watches, to illuminate the figures. Girls who did it got sick or died from licking their paintbrushes.

    Today’s Greek Myth: N Is For Nausicaa and Narcissus


    • I’d heard about the watches. Seems crazy now that it would have ever been used like that!

  8. Oh boy, scary story about the professor of chemistry 😨
    Quilting Patchwork & Appliqué

  9. This makes me think of radium, which had a lot of use after its discovery, when it was used to illuminate watch faces and girls who worked at the watch factories dying because they licked their paintbrushes. I think it even killed its discoverer, Marie Curie!

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