What is that liquid metal, beautiful and fascinating but, in turn, fatal?

Mercury is a very special element of the periodic table, with a strange but beautiful shape and characteristics, but, nevertheless, for health, tremendously deadly.

In ancient times, mercury was considered the “raw material” from which all metals were made. Mercury is a lethal mineral and, for this reason, it has fallen out of favor in such a way that there is even an international treaty to reduce its use.

It’s easy to understand why mercury arouses such fascination. It is the only metal that remains liquid at room temperature. It is also one of the few things that reacts with that most seductive of elements, gold.

Mercury: important keys

  • It was previously known as hydrargyrum , which means in Greek: water and silver
  • Symbol: Hg
  • Atomic number: 80
  • Weight: 200.59
  • liquid at room temperature
  • Used in industrial chemicals and for electrical and electronic uses
  • The mineral known as Cinnabar (mercury sulfide) is its most common form.
  • Largest producers: China and Kyrgyzstan

The mineral and its harmful effects

Mercury is a deep, systematic and slow poison for humans and also for other organisms. Therefore, introducing mercury into the environment is a very serious matter because it can cause a lot of environmental damage. Mercury is a neurotoxin that damages the kidneys and other organs.

About half of the mercury that enters the environment each year comes from volcanic eruptions and other geological processes. Given that, there is nothing to do. But the other half is released by human action.

Bright red in color, the mercury metal cinnabar has been used as a pigment since Neolithic times. About 10,000 years ago, early artists used it to paint images of aurochs, the now-extinct giant cattle, on cave walls in Turkey.

The Romans used it as a blush and the Chinese used it to color lacquer, while in the Middle Ages it was used as a wax pigment for the sealing wax used to seal documents to authenticate them.

The metal, its uses and its release into the atmosphere

For centuries, among other uses, the metal was also used in medicine. Until recently, it was used in antiseptics, laxatives, antidepressants, and anti-syphilis drugs.

There is also its application in thermometers. Thus, most adults will have used mercury thermometers and some will even have it in a filling in a tooth that contains it.

Some of that mercury in medicine will eventually make its way into the atmosphere. Many of us will be cremated, whereupon the mercury will go up in smoke with our mortal remains.

The same goes for the tiny amounts of mercury vapor that are the source of light from fluorescent light bulbs, which is why care must be taken when disposing of them.

But fillings and light bulbs are only a tiny fraction of the 2,000 tons of mercury that humans release into the atmosphere each year.

About a quarter is a product of power generation. There are trace amounts of mercury in coal, so power plants that run on that mineral inevitably release it into the atmosphere.

In the air or in the water

Worldwide there are an estimated 10 to 15 million small-scale miners who dig, dredge, pan and pan for gold, many of them using mercury to separate the pure metal from silt.

Mercury forms an amalgam with gold. When boiled it remains pure gold. The problem comes when they boil the mercury to obtain pure gold or when they dispose of contaminated remains.

In water, mercury transforms into a highly toxic organic molecule, methylmercury, which is quickly taken up by algae and plankton. These are the food of larger animals, which in turn are eaten by even larger ones, until they reach us (and the seals).

Along the way, that toxic chemical becomes increasingly concentrated, posing a particularly serious threat to the developing brains of children and fetuses.

They also target fish, especially those at the top of the food chain, predators like swordfish.

When one examines the top of the food chain, one finds thousands of times more mercury in the flesh of the fish.

The need for a joint reaction of the countries to this situation

The governments of the world do not usually agree on many things, but when it comes to mercury, it seems that they do. The fact that 93 nations, including the United States, have signed the Minamata treaty, designed to restrict mercury pollution, shows how concerned they are about the effects of mercury on the environment.

That means installing equipment that collects it in the smokestacks of power plants, foundries and cement factories. It also means continuing to phase out the use of mercury in medicines and equipment. But the hardest thing is probably going to be breaking the bond between mercury and gold.

Mining and the choice between three systems: a capture device for mercury, borax or cyanide

How are millions of independent miners persuaded not to use mercury in their extractive activities?

One possibility would be to use a device that captures the mercury vapor when boiled. The device dramatically reduces the amount of vapor released into the atmosphere and allows miners to reuse mercury, saving them money.

There are other alternatives such as using borax , which is an aggressive chemical used in industrial cleaning, or using cyanide , which, at first, sounds very bad. Both chemicals are no longer dangerous when exposed to air for about 24 hours.

However, adopting one of these three strategies would require investment, and that makes it difficult to sell the idea to people who are so poor that they are willing to risk their lives and the health of their families in order to survive on what they earn from it. Prayed.

But let’s not forget the good news: the world has come together to combat its addiction to mercury, and if that is possible, perhaps we can hold out hope that we can overcome even greater challenges.