Iraq Mercury Poisoning
In the early 1970's a major methyl mercury poisoning catastrophe occurred in which an estimated 10,000 people died and 100,000 were severely and permanently brain damaged. Saddam Hussein's regime was largely successful in suppressing information about the event.
The problem began in the late 1960's and early 1970's, when Iraq experienced a series of abysmal harvests its leader decided to import a newly branded "wonder wheat" from Mexico. The risk was that the seed might grow moldy during the long, humid ocean transport to Iraq if it was not dressed with some fungicide. Methyl mercury became the most cost-effective fungicide, because it had recently been banned in Scandinavia and several American states due to environmental and toxicological risks. So the world market was flooded and prices dropped. (reference)
However, bad things start to happen a few months later and hospitals were flooded with patients showing symptoms of damage to the central nervous system. At first, doctors initially had no idea as to the cause. Some suspected an epidemic of "brain fever" of some sort. Others more accurately pointed to methyl mercury.
A small group of international experts on mercury were called in and methyl mercury poisoning was confirmed through contaminated food. When the imported grain was identified as the cause of the poisoning, Iraq's government acted decisively. Farmers were ordered to hand over all remaining supplies within a fortnight. To stress the urgency, a death penalty for possessing pink grain after that date was declared.
In rural Iraq the tradition is that a person preferably should die at home with his or her family around. Thus, when they saw and heard that doctors couldn't help, people brought their sick family member home. Consequently, the official figures that put the number of deaths from methyl mercury poisoning at 6,500 people only cover those who died in hospital. The real number is certainly far higher.
The crisis did provide doctors with some greater understanding of how to detect methyl mercury poisoning. "Quiet baby syndrome," for example, when mothers praise their babies for never crying, is now considered a warning sign for methyl mercury induced brain damage in children. Treatment, too, has changed in the wake of the mass poisoning. The agents traditionally used to speed up excretion of inorganic metals from poisoned patients turned out to make symptoms of methyl mercury poisoning worse rather than milder.
See also: Amalgamation, Appliances, Chlor-Alkali, Dentistry, Explosives, Iraq poisoning, 'Mad as a Hatter', Mercury, Methylmercury, Minamata, Minamata timeline, Medical uses, Pigmentand organic fungicide production, Toxicology