OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

4:00 P.M.

November 17, 1983

The Mad Hatter and the Sacrificial Lamms

by Charles D. Howell Ph.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


Subject: Mercury Poisoning.

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.

Biography of the Author

Charles DeWitt 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 vanish.

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 disease.

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 well-documented.

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:




Ocean water

0.0002 ppm

0.002 ppm

Ocean fish



Human hair


145 -> symptoms

500-600 -> Severe symptoms, death

What did the Japanese government do about this? Under protest, in 1970, it a,reed to compensate victims who were identified

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 rebuild it. 

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 the public.

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 don't eats."

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 ppm
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 products.

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 signal.

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 creativity.


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 Spills

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 unfortunate organisms.

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 place.

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.

 Technical Bibliography

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. 1978.

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.

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