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Chem/Bio Warfare

And While We’re On the Subject – Mercury?

There’s another report this morning of an arrest of a suspected Chechen terrorist, who was carrying what’s described as 18 pounds of mercury in a champagne bottle. “”Such an amount of mercury would poison a very large number of people,” said a spokesman for the Moscow police.

Would it? The amount is right – 18 pounds of mercury works out to about 600 mL, which would fit just fine into a bottle. But what could you do with it? Mercury, in its elemental form, is a very, very slow toxin indeed. You can even drink a shot of the stuff and pass it out of your body without getting killed. It won’t improve you, that’s for sure, but it won’t kill you.

If you try that stunt, your body (or your intestinal bacteria) will take a very small amount of the metal up and convert it to organomercurial compounds, which are the real problem. Those are much more easily absorbed than the pure metal, and can really do some damage. (These are the forms of mercury found in fish, for example – it’s not the free metal.) Mercury reacts with sulfur-containing proteins, among other things, and there are plenty of proteins that depend on sulfur for their structure and activity. You can’t afford to lose ’em. Long-term exposure to mercury vapor (which the liquid metal is always producing, very slowly,) gives you the best (ie, worst) chance to absorb the element. That’s how mercury’s toxicity was first noticed, but this can take months or years to develop as the protein damage piles up.

Now, if this guy had been carrying a few pounds of something like dimethyl mercury, then things would be different. That’s one of the simplest organomercurials, and it is extremely bad news indeed. Just a few years ago, a research chemist at Dartmouth was when a few drops of this compound fell onto her latex-gloved hand. It penetrated the glove, then her skin. She didn’t notice a thing; nothing seemed amiss for several months. Then neurological symptoms rapidly began to show up, and she died within weeks.

That’s about as bad as mercury compounds get, and it still takes time for it to kill you. This Chechen probably thought he was carrying a serious poison, but he was mostly hauling around a rather expensive barbell. Here’s hoping he paid a lot of money for it.