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Mad as a Hatter: Global efforts to reduce mercury emissions

Posted in NEWS on Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Originally posted by Research News @ Vanderbilt

Did you ever wonder what made the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland so mad? The phrase “mad as a hatter” actually comes from Mad Hatter disease, better known as mercury poisoning. In the 19th century, fur treated with mercury was used to make felt hats. Hatters were confined in small spaces and breathed toxic mercury fumes, resulting in “mad” or irrational behavior.

Today mercury is used in manufacturing processes, as a vaccine preservative, in dental amalgam fillings, certain medications and cosmetics, and in fluorescent light bulbs. But the most common cause of mercury toxicity in humans results from eating fish and shellfish that have been contaminated by industrial runoff.

Last month representatives of more than 140 countries agreed to the terms of a treaty called the Minamata Convention that would ban the use of mercury in switches, certain fluorescent lamps, cosmetics, most batteries and certain medical thermometers and blood pressure devices by 2020. The treaty is scheduled to be finalized this fall in Minamata, Japan, where industrial waste poisoned an entire village 50 years ago.

While the treaty is a promising step forward, it does not go far enough, said Michael Aschner, a leading expert on mercury toxicity at Vanderbilt University who had the privilege of meeting patients still suffering from the poisoning in Minamata. In particular, a ban on the use of mercury in some pharmaceuticals “seems to have been tabled,” said Aschner, who directs the Vanderbilt Center in Molecular Toxicology.

Read more here.