It was love affair that continued for more than 4000 years. Surprised? That’s what happened between mankind and the metal called Mercury. More you go back in the history more this affair turns into fatal obsession. But that is history. Year 2013 turned out to be beginning of the end of that love affair.
Only metal, which is in the liquid state and which cannot be caught in ‘pinch’ was lethal attraction for the kings in China, Egypt and the rulers in Maya civilization.
After their death their loved metal went down flowing with them in their tombs. They all thought that mercury is next to gold-a ‘water-silver’ or quicksilver, as is known for centuries. Kings and rulers wanted their love to be next to them even after their death. They wanted to be surrounded by the rivers and lakes of quicksilver, their ‘ultimate love’ in its real sense.
18th century saw the democratization of this love affair. There started ordinary man’s honeymoon with mercury when it started getting used by more and more people for their ‘bodily’ needs and pleasures.
A bulb of mercury thermometer was put in mouth to measure the body temperature of a child, adult and old , doctors used it for the measurement for blood-pressure in humans, mercury amalgams were used as dental filling, ladies used its compound to beautify eye-lashes, school going children had fun by flirting with it in the laboratory without being able to catch it or pinch it. In their adolescence, the science students were mesmerized with its glow when used in electronic diodes in the laboratory, and later near-adult engineering students in their practical classes played with it to learn how the on-off electrical switches operate. The decorators were awed by its use in neon signs, environmentalists promoted use of CFL lamps that had mercury in it. The industrialists used it to manufacture omnipresent chemicals like caustic soda and chlorine which are building blocks of mankind’s chemical kingdom.
For me too, as a chemical engineering student, it was easy to remember this element in the chemistry class. In periodic table it is 6th period, 12th group, atomic weight of 200 and atomic number of 80. All even numbers that was so easy to remember. Like a name of your only love. No other element’s numbers are so easy to recall; barring probably hydrogen. Mercury was my favored element in my chemistry lessons, though it became difficult when I started learning its extraction process from its mineral cinnabar during my Chemical Engineering classes.
Mankind’s love affair had no end, till all of us together sucked out almost all mercury as much we could, estimated to be more than 350,000 tons, from the mother earth and threw it out in the air, oceans and biosphere. It is still there in its different avatar. It is long lasting love. WE had banked it!
And then came the shock in early 1950s. The love turned into hate. A crippling disease among Japanese was identified as the consequence of our love affair with mercury. Fish consumed a mercury compound drained in the Minamata Bay of Japan, by the nearby industry through its effluent. Fish from the bay eaten by the Japanese, caused more than 1700 deaths in and many more were crippled for their whole life. The real number of affected people due to Minamata disease would probably never be known even today.
Then the world woke up to stark reality. More stories of mercury poisoning were revealed. The fatal liaison was scientifically proved. But official global action to ban the use of Mercury started only 4 years back in 2009 i.e. 60 years after the incidence of Minamata disease.
It took 4 millennium for man-kind to come out of its flirting with Mercury. The Convention-called Minamata Convention-brokered by UNEP in Geneva to control the production, trade and use of Mercury –mankind’s valentine-was agreed on 18th January 2013. Hold. It is not done yet. The ban is expected to be in force after 2020, i.e. 70 years after the revelation of the fatal nature of Mercury.
History is full of such love stories. I recall on this Valentine Day another our love with CFCs, ozone deleting chemicals. It took 13 years for the mankind from the scientific revelation to initiate the action to protect the ozone layer. And there is another one, with fossil fuel, against which mankind is not even ready to take comprehensive action even after scientific consensus that goes against this love affair. The reasons why it has taken much more time to initiate the action against it are as fluid and as viscous as Mercury.
History of Multilateral Environmental Agreements to ban fatal attraction is mercurial indeed.
By Rajendra Shende
14th Feb 2013.