Element of the Month: Mercury
Mercury, named after the planet Mercury, is an element with the atomic number 80. It was discovered in approximately 1500 BC, and it has fascinated people for centuries due to its liquid, silvery metal appearance. Cinnabar, also known as mercury sulfide, was used as a bright red pigment by painters almost 30,000 years ago to illustrate the inner caves in France and Spain. By heating up the cinnabar, they could obtain liquid mercury. They found a way to utilize mercury to dissolve alluvial gold and extract the gold itself by distilling off the mercury. Cinnabar was exploited by people in the past to collect gold during times like the California Gold Rush in 1848. However, it is no longer easily used in this process due to its high toxicity levels.
Mercury is commonly known as it is used in thermometers since it rises with heat. However, modern thermometers do not use mercury anymore because if it were to spill out of the glass tube, mercury would release harmful toxins in the air and contaminate surrounding wildlife. It is now used as catalysts in the chemical industry and some rectifiers and electrical switches. Also, mercury is used with caution in high-grade paint pigments for the color known as vermillion.
The element naturally occurs in almost every living thing in the environment. Humans that eat fish and shellfish often are exposed to toxins since they contain a form of mercury in their tissue. Mercury also roams our atmosphere due to humans burning fossil fuels and other wastes. A portion of the airborne mercury can accumulate and travel to the ground as raindrops, which damages the organisms living in the area.
The health effects from prolonged exposure to inhaling vapor mercury include tremors, insomnia, headaches, and poor mental function. Methylmercury, which resides in the skins of fish, can cause loss of peripheral vision, muscle weakness, lack of movement coordination and impairment of speech in high dosages.
What YOU Can Do
A cleaner, but unfortunately more expensive, alternative to electrical energy would be using energy that comes from natural gas, solar, or wind sources. That way you would not be using energy coming from a fossil fuel-burning plant. Also, you can make sure you buy mercury-free products and check if there are items in your house that contain mercury and that can be replaced. Always be wary of the steps you take that involve mercury to stay healthy!