Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone and welcome to the last column of the year and of the decade. Interestingly enough I’ve received several requests for the rerun of an old column this year so I thought I’d give you that one again and add another previous column with an interesting update.
Our first subject concerns an element that’s extremely toxic. Oddly enough, there’s now a push to place more of this toxic element in your home in a very dangerous form, all in the name of saving energy.
TEA WITH THE MAD HATTER
Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you seemed to be talking at cross-purposes? Have a look at this excerpt from Alice in Wonderland and you’ll see what I mean.
Alice had been looking over his [the Mad Hatter] shoulder with some curiosity. `What a funny watch!’ she remarked. `It tells the day of the month, and doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!’
`Why should it?’ muttered the Hatter. `Does your watch tell you what year it is?’
`Of course not,’ Alice replied very readily: `but that’s because it stays the same year for such a long time together.’
`Which is just the case with mine,’ said the Hatter.
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.
The Mad Hatter is just full of remarks like that and interestingly enough; Lewis Carol had a very definite role model in mind when he created the character. In 19th century England (and the United States), hatters (people who made hats) really did go mad. Many hats were (and still are) made of felt and the chemicals used to cure felt included mercury nitrate. Prolonged exposure to these mercury vapors caused mercury poisoning. Victims developed severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, called "hatter’s shakes"; other symptoms included distorted vision and confused speech. Advanced cases developed hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.
Many hats were made of beaver fur, but cheaper ones used rabbit fur instead. Making a rabbit fur hat was complex and involved many steps. One step was to brush a solution of mercury nitrate on to the fur to roughen the fibers and make them mat more easily. The process called carroting because it made the fur turn orange. Beaver fur has natural serrated edges that make this unnecessary, one reason why it was preferred, but the cost and scarcity of beaver meant that other furs had to be used.
Whatever the source of the fur, the fibers were shaved off the skin and matted into felt; which was later immersed in a boiling acid solution to thicken and harden it. The acid treatment decomposed the mercury nitrate to elemental mercury. Finishing processes included steaming the hat to shape and ironing it. In all these steps, hatters working in poorly ventilated workshops would breathe in mercury vapor.
This hazard continued into the 20th century and it wasn’t until 1941 that the US officially banned the practice of using mercury to make hats. Although hatters are no longer routinely exposed to the hazards of mercury, you may not be so lucky.
Elemental mercury is everywhere. The vapor is easily transported by the wind and trace amounts can be found in all bodies of water. Unfortunately, bacteria can cause chemical changes that transform elemental mercury to methyl mercury, a more toxic form.
Fish absorb methyl mercury from the water as it passes over their gills and as they feed on aquatic organisms. The mercury then moves up the food chain and top-drawer predators like sharks, tuna and swordfish can contain significant amounts of toxic mercury which can then wind up on your plate and in your body.
But that’s not the only way you can get mercury into your body. When I was very young and extremely stupid, someone gave me some elemental mercury and I played with it for about a week.
But then I began to notice something really strange. My vision had altered. Whenever I looked at things it was like looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything looked much farther away that it should. It was years later that I discovered that this vision change is one of the first indications of mercury poisoning. It lasted for several months.
Flash forward to today. I received one of those new ‘curly lightbulbs’ for free because they last significantly longer than conventional bulbs and they are ‘so good for the environment’. So when the light over my stove burned out, I used that bulb to replace it, because the light over my stove burns 24/7.
Unfortunately, old butterfingers dropped it and it shattered into a million pieces. A day or so later, I told my daughter-in-law the same story I just told you because strangely enough, I had the same symptoms of looking the wrong way through a telescope. And my daughter-in-law said “Don’t you know that the ‘curly bulbs’ are full of mercury?” Hmmmmm . . . . . those bulbs may not be the ‘planet savers’ everyone says they are!
And now, for the article that I’ve had several requests to run again. If mercury poisoning just alters your vision or makes you crazy, what’s going to kill you?
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
One of the best things about my job at the University of Guam Planetarium is the chance to talk to the kids (and adults) after the show. And one of the things that absolutely fascinates me is what kids worry about. They want to know if we’re all going to be pulled into a black hole (no chance), get run over by another planet (no chance) or die when the Sun explodes (the Sun won’t explode; it isn’t big enough). And many of them are convinced that, like the dinosaurs, we’ll all die in an asteroid impact.
We won’t die in an asteroid impact. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of all asteroids live in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and are always millions of miles away from Earth. There are a few rogue asteroids that cross Earth’s orbital path, but we know where they are because they’re big and easy to see and none of them are on a collision course with Earth.
But Earth does cross the path of millions of objects smaller than asteroids. Earth, the spaceship you ride every day of your life runs over about 1,000 objects a day as we circle the Sun at 66,000 mph. Most of them are dust and sand grains. A rock smaller than 50 feet on a side burns up entirely from friction with our air and never hits the ground.
Bigger rocks called meteors do hit the Earth, though. Seventy percent of them land in the water; since the world ocean covers 70% of our planet. We hit roughly two rocks a week that leave remnants that punch all the way through to the surface.
About once a century, we get hit by a meteor that was originally the size of a football field. These rocks can do serious damage if they hit land. A rock about this size blew up over Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. A rock has to be at least a mile in diameter to have global effects and it was a meteor about 6 miles across that took out the dinosaurs. It will happen again; there are lots of big rocks out there with “Earth” written right across the front.
So . . . what are the chances that it will happen in your lifetime? What are the odds that you’ll die in a meteor impact? Should you be scared like the little kids that come into the Planetarium?
For that matter, what WILL kill you? Nobody gets out alive you know; something will cause your death. So what should you be afraid of? Meteors? Tsunamis? Earthquakes? Environmental pollution? Airplanes? Cars? There are people who worry about these odds as a profession (and I suspect most of them work in the insurance business). So let’s examine your chances.
Dying in a meteor impact ranks way down at the bottom. Your chances of checking out under a big rock are 1 in 200,000. Interestingly enough, those odds are pretty high when you consider that we have no recorded information about anyone ever dying in a meteor impact. And they are high because when the big one comes in, it will destroy lots and lots of real estate and many (most? all?) people will die.
Because of the potential destruction, those odds are lower than your chances of dying in a tsunami, which are 1 in 500,000. If the big one hits, it won’t make any difference where you are on Earth, but in order to die in a tsunami, you have to be on a coast, which reduces your chances.
Your chances of dying in an earthquake are significantly higher at 1 in 132,000. Mother Earth is restless and we do insist on living in inadequate housing on fault lines. Here on Guam we’re at risk, but our houses, are, as a general rule adequate, as the 10th largest earthquake in recorded history proved.
Do you worry a great deal about dying in the electric chair? To help you gain some perspective on these odds; your chances of dying in a legal execution in the United States (all these statistics are for the U.S.) are 1 in 58,000. Since I have no worries about my criminal activities, those odds sure make me feel better about the earthquake, tsunami and meteor impacts!
But you might want to think again about getting on that airplane. Your odds of dying in an airplane crash are 1 in 20,000. And you might also want to stay out of the water. Mama Ocean does not forgive, and your odds of dying by drowning are 1 in 9,000.
Mother Nature isn’t very forgiving in general, and your odds for dying by natural forces which includes typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, lightning strikes, tornados, floods, blizzards (I’m not too worried about that here!) and all the other ways that Mother Nature can do you in, are definitely creeping up there at 1 in 3,000.
Don’t smoke in bed. As a matter of fact, don’t smoke at all and definitely don’t use matches or be around anyone who does. Your chances of dying by fire or smoke are 1 in 1,100.
Next up is a chilling statistic. Guns may not kill people (people kill people); but your chances of dying by gunfire are a whopping 1 in 325. I guess I should start telling the kids that they need to be much more afraid of Daddy’s handgun than that meteor.
If you’re really worried about how you’ll die and you want to know what you should be afraid of, sell the car immediately and never get in another one because your chances of dying in an automobile accident are 1 in 100. I’m always amused by people who are afraid to fly. They should really be afraid to cross the street.
So, what’s the real killer? What should you really be afraid of? Well, it isn’t meteors, or typhoons or tsunamis or earthquakes, or airplanes or cars and we all harbor the weapon in our homes. Your chances of dying of heart disease are 1 in 5, and the weapon is the fork.