Mercury Falling

Like four of his five brothers, my grandfather was a family dentist, and in his semi-retired years he practiced out of his home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. As a child, his office fascinated me, with its old-fashioned porcelain dental chair that weighed a ton, and the vintage wooden instrument cabinets that were fitted with little sliding drawers.

Jerry Russell Illustration

But what intrigued me most were those mysterious little glass bottles of silvery liquid he had on the shelves, which I confess to having often spilled onto the floors and tabletops when my parents weren’t looking. I marveled at how the curious substance rolled around in little balls that stayed intact.

Who’da thunk the stuff was as toxic as toxic gets, and that today we’d be grappling with the legacy of mercury, not only in our fillings (where it now masquerades as “silver”), but also in our air, water, and the fish we eat?

Well, my grandfather’s days were then, and this is now. We may not have known any better 40 or 50 years ago, but there’s no question today that mercury—considered to be “one of the most dangerous substances known to science”—has no useful place in our lives. With the support of our elected officials, and with both corporate and public dollars, industry should move swiftly to clean up the mess that our past ignorance has left behind. And we should also take steps to remove the mercury still used today in dental offices, thermometers and car-based light switches. We can no longer tolerate it as the byproduct of polluting industry or energy sources, either.

It is indeed unfortunate that when issues like this come to our attention, the corporate community’s first inclination, often with the backing of pro-business politicians and pundits, is to play down the dangers or whine about the costs involved—as if people’s health were not the first priority. The Bush plan on mercury, for example, represents a significant retreat from proposals that emerged at the end of the Clinton Administration, both in terms of percentage of emissions reduced and the timetable for making the reductions.

It was recently revealed that 1950s nuclear testing, its dangers all along played down in much the same way, was much worse than earlier believed. “Any person living in the contiguous United States since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout, and all organs and tissues of the body have received some radiation exposure,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute in a report prepared recently for Congress. According to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, some 15,000 deaths are “known to be attributable to those nuclear tests,” and that may be just “the tip of the iceberg.”

Will it take a nuclear fallout-type revelation before our political and business leaders take action on mercury? If a White House indiscretion that harmed no one was worth hundreds of millions of dollars in legal and political maneuvering, and thousands of hours of saturation media coverage, then I think we can afford to deal with the mercury problem right now. Don’t you?