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Medical Uses of Mercury

Chinese alchemist Ge Hong or Ko Hung (283 -343 C.E.)The line between alchemy and medicine was not always clear. In 2nd century China, the study of mercury centered on a search for an elixir of life to confer longevity or immortality. The prominent Chinese alchemist Ge Hong or Ko Hung (283 -343 C.E.) , who lived in the 4th century, believed that man is what he eats, and so by eating gold he could attain perfection. Yet, he reasoned, a true believer was likely to be poor, and so it was necessary to find a substitute for the precious metal. This, in his estimation, could be accomplished by making gold from cinnabar. Ge Hong’s other uses for cinnabar included smearing it on the feet to enable a person to walk on water, placing it over a doorway to ward off thieves, and combining it with raspberry juice to enable elderly men to beget children. (reference)

Aristotle is credited with the oldest known written record of mercury (in an academic text dating back to sometime during the 4th century BCE), in which he referred to it as “fluid silver” and “quicksilver.” This academic text conveyed what alchemists of his day believed: that mercury was the component in all metals that gave them their “metal-ness.” At that time, it was used in ceremonies and to treat skin disorders. In India and China, it was used as an aphrodisiac and for medical therapy circa 500 BCE. Chinese woman are reported to have consumed mercury as a contraceptive 4,000 years ago. Cinnabar is still used as a sedative in traditional Chinese medicine (reference).

In the era before antibiotics, sexually-transmitted diseases were deadly. Some scholars believe that syphilis was the most critical medical problem of the first half of the 16th century. A great number of printed works dealing with syphilis first appeared at the end of the 15th century when it was known by such names as "morbus gallicius," "the French disease," "the pox," and "lues venera." In the desperate search for a cure, it was almost inevitable that various forms of mercury would be tried. Indeed, the treatment appeared to benefit some patients. Mercury was the remedy of choice for syphilis in Protestant Europe. Paracelsus (1493-1541) formulated mercury as an ointment because he recognised the toxicity and risk of poisoning when administrating mercury as an elixir. Mercury was already being used in Western Europe to treat skin diseases. Mercury ointments continued to be used well into the 19th and early 20th century.

The dominating medical use of Hg, (in metallic form and as calomel, Hg2Cl2), in Sweden in the second half of the 19th century indicates that some persons were highly exposed to Hg, mainly for treatment of syphilis, and 0.3-1% of the population of 3.5-5 millions were treated for venereal diseases (10 000-50 000 persons). However, the per capita consumption of Hg was low in Sweden during this period, contrary to the USA, where most Hg was used in gold mining, causing direct human exposure when Hg is emitted as vapor during the burning process. The total number of persons engaged in gold mining in the USA is not known, but in 1899 between 50 000 and 100 000 gold miners rushed to Yukon Valley in Alaska and western Canada. (reference)

Sublimate (HgCl2 ) is in certain countries still used as an antiseptic for wounds. It was used in large quantities during the World Wars, triggered by the largely increased use of Hg in explosives. Sublimate was also used for preserving wood. Nowadays, the use of Hg in medicine, pharmaceutical products, and gold mining has been prohibited or restricted in industrialized countries, but is still a topic of large concern for the population in many other countries, and needs to be acted upon in order to reduce human exposure. For example, Thimerosal (ethylmercury thiosalicylate) used for preserving vaccines in many countries should be refrained from administering to children, being most vulnerable to Hg. The use of Hg-containing skin lightening soaps, creams, and powder for adults and babies should be ended immediately. This legal production in the EU for export to Africa and India continued for several years after the production for domestic sale had been banned, indicating an example of double standards in the EU.

Dental Amalgam

1830′s, a revolutionary new dental restorative material called ‘amalgam’ was introduced to the United States. This amalgam was developed in England and France and contained silver, tin, copper, zinc and mercury. The amalgam fillings were not openly embraced by organized dentistry in America, and in 1840, members of the American Society of Dental Surgeons were required to sign pledges not to use mercury fillings. In fact, several New York city dentists were suspended from this organization in 1848 for ‘malpractice for using silver mercury fillings’. In 1859, a new organization was formed as a result of the internal strife over the use of mercury in dentistry — the American Dental Association  (reference).

Mercury Thermometers

Thermometers contain the less toxic elemental form of mercury and have almost never been a safety issue in peoples’ homes. However, in the 1970's and 1980's, workers at the Staco thermometer plant in Poultney, Vermont, began to notice a common series of health problems: headaches, bleeding or sore gums, upset digestive systems, and coordination problems. Upon investigation, mercury was detected in the air of workers’ homes, on their clothing and furniture, and most tragically, in the bodies of many workers and their children. This was the first time in which the children of mercury-handling workers were proven to have been affected. The plant closed in 1984. Several plant workers have since settled lawsuits with the company for undisclosed sums. Another lawsuit brought against the company by the town of Poultney and the state of Vermont was settled in September of 1991. Staco paid $289,000 to the town of Poultney for costs related to the clean-up of the town’s water treatment plant. (reference)

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