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Not All Mercury Is Equal!

Did you know that not all mercury is equal??

I didn’t…. But here’s how I found out!

So, while I was doing some research on how to separate gold from mica and what acids affect mica (which are practically none, sadly) I came across some interesting conversations, which lead to some even more interesting research!

First of all – there are multiple types of Mercury…. never really thought about it, so, I did not know that. If you were like me, now you know something new! You’re welcome.

Secondly – some types of mercury, like Dimethyl Mercury, are fatally toxic with just one or two drops on your skin. Whereas other types of mercury are safe to be handled for a short time or even accidentally ingested in small quantities.

So, we are going to look into these mercuries a little more closely, just for the sake of learning something new and interesting!!

Dimethyl Mercury

Dimethyl Mercury is an organomercury compound -that is to say, it’s mercury that has been chemically bound to carbon. Organomercury compounds are more readily absorbed into your blood, which makes them much more toxic and dangerous.

Dimethyl Mercury is also a neurotoxin – one of the strongest ones currently known to man due to its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. In 1998, a chemist named Karen Wetterhahn died after accidentally spilling a couple drops of this neurotoxin on her latex glove. It took her 5 months to start showing symptoms, so she didn’t realize it was related to the incident until after she got diagnosed with mercury poisoning. But she died about 3 weeks after the symptoms presented themselves.

Because Dimethyl Mercury is such a dangerous, high risk substance, scientists did not generally use this form of mercury. They used standard, nontoxic mercury salts, which is easier for the human body to expel should it come into contact with you.

However, since the unfortunate incident with Wetterhahn, Dimethyl Mercury has been made illegal, and you can’t get it for personal use, especially for home projects, even if you wanted to.

The mercury that is “safer” to handle is a liquid metal (Symbol Hg on the periodic table), also known as “quicksilver” because of its fluidity, and is commonly used to capture fine gold flakes and particles. Still toxic if inhaled – keep reading to learn more!

Methyl Mercury

Methyl Mercury is extremely poisonous and is created when bacteria interacts with mercury found in water, soil, or plants. It is so poisonous that you can get methyl mercury poisoning from eating an animal who was fed contaminated grain.

Methyl Mercury also builds up in shellfish, fish, animals that eat fish, etc.

Methyl Mercury is the most toxic form of mercury. It can: affect the immune system, damage the nervous system, alter your genetic and enzyme systems, and affect your sense of taste, smell, sight, muscle coordination.

It will stay in your system for about 70 days on average, including the half-life.  Drinking a lot of water can help flush it out of your system, since it is excreted through your urine.  Shark, orange roughy, swordfish and ling are some of the fish that are highest in methyl mercury.


Liquid Mercury

Mercury is also the only common metal that is a liquid at room temperature. According to the CDC, if a small amount of mercury is ingested, most of it will pass through your body and won’t hurt you. If it is handled for any length of time, a small amount may enter your body through your skin. But it will not be enough to hurt you.

Interesting fact: Liquid mercury, when it is left out in the open, can vaporize! This of course fills the air with invisible, odorless, tiny mercury atoms. These atoms are oil and fat soluble – making it harder for your body to get rid of the mercury. The mercury vapor becomes a poisonous, odorless nerve gas. Which, if inhaled, is easily absorbed by your body.

When you breath this invisible gas in, it goes straight to your lungs. From there it travels into your blood and then to your brain. This nerve poison can cause sleep disorders, agitation, and paralysis.  It can also cause headaches, hallucinations, and psychosis. Does not sound pleasant at all…..

You are still safe to use it for extracting gold from contaminants. Just don’t go breathing in the fumes. Also, make sure you use it outside, and wear gloves.

To play Captain Obvious here: don’t use mercury near or around children. The silvery liquid will be fascinating to them and you don’t want them playing with it.

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