Mercury Poisoning in Popular Culture

By: Philip Wolfe

In writing for this blog, I’ve been considering the role of communication and message-building in science and science policy. I’m often surprised about the extent of people’s scientific knowledge. Last year I was in a bar in Cambridge that was having a trivia contest, and 90% of the trivia teams there were able to correctly identify the isotope of cesium used to define the second as a unit of time measurement. Now, this was not a random sampling of the US population at large (it was a heavy MIT crowd), but I still think that’s pretty amazing.

Yet, while I’ve been prepping for these negotiations, I have been speaking with friends and colleagues and many of them have no idea about the problems mercury poses to the world. How can the same group of people, a group that clearly has a good science foundation, be so unaware of something that is such a significant policy issue?

I don’t have a great answer (and I would love to hear thoughts from other people), but I thought it might be fun to look at how mercury and mercury-related health impacts are portrayed in popular culture to perhaps gain some insight.

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

It turns out there may not be a whole lot of insight to gain. Over 177 episodes of House, not once was mercury the final diagnosis, and its not like the show shied away from outré solutions. Gold, cadmium, cobalt, lead and even selenium poisoning all make it on the final diagnosis tally sheet.

In fact, mercury poisoning is rarely mentioned as even a possibility for whatever pain or illness the primary patient may have. I’ll give the writers credit, when it comes up the details are pretty accurate. In “Son of a Coma Guy,” the team guesses that seizures and visual problems could be caused by mercury exposure at a luxury yacht factory. It’s a neat throwaway fact, as mercury was formerly used in mildew-resistant paints, but that practice has been discontinued in the US since the early 90’s.

One episode of the CBS Drama The 11th Hour, in which a brilliant biophysicist solves science crimes for the FBI and stops deadly experiments (yes, that really was the premise), did look at the long lasting and potentially devastating consequences of mercury releases to lakes and watersheds. I haven’t seen the episode, but judging by the fact that the series was cancelled after just 18 episodes, I think its fair to say it wasn’t part of the cultural zeitgeist.

In movies, mercury is not represented much more. While toxic chemicals have been covered in “based on true events” movies like A Civil Action (trichloroethylene) and Erin Brockovich (hexavalent chromium), Hollywood seems to be pretty silent on mercury. The glaring exception is a wonderfully bizarre environmental agitprop horror film from the 1970s called Prophecy. In it, mercury waste from a logging company creates violent raccoons, salmon large enough to eat a duck and, worst of all, a giant bear-monster that may also be a reincarnated, evil forest spirit. What it lacks in accuracy (and it lacks a lot in accuracy) it more than makes up for in terrible special effects.

Mercury’s absence in music is a bit more understandable. “Big Issue” songs, like Joni Mitchell calling for farmers to put away their DDT, have not been in vogue over the past few decades. The Dead Kennedy’s song “Kepone Factory,” about a chemical quite similar to DDT, references the Minamata disaster. In Minamata, Japan, over 2000 people have been diagnosed with a severe neurological impairments from mercury exposure. Japanese-American composer Toshiko Akiyoshi has written a jazz suite about the Minamata disaster, but unfortunately the LP with the most acclaimed recording of this piece has not been released in the US.

I’m not sure why mercury has not been more prevalent in popular culture. The potential dangers are chilling enough and the real-life tragedies (here for example) are certainly deserving of greater acknowledgement and provide compelling narratives for art. It certainly makes it harder for scientists and policymakers to enact real change, or for victims to be compensated for that matter, because there’s such a dearth of awareness of the underlying problem.

I wonder if some celebrity took up mercury as a personal cause if it could raise the public consciousness about the issue. There is evidence that it could. In late 2008, Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow, citing hydrargaria from sushi consumption. When the news broke, Google searches for “mercury poisoning” nearly doubled.

Getting a high-profile public figure to support a global treaty on mercury could be one way to improve public awareness. As a scientist though, I fear the flip side of that coin. If mercury becomes a cause célèbre overnight, there may not be enough scientifically-sound publically-available literature to properly support any nascent movement. Ask a scientist studying vaccine safety how they feel about Jenny McCarthy for an idea of how scientists can quickly find themselves unable to control a scientific conversation.

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Philip Wolfe

About Philip Wolfe

I am a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I work in the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment and the Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction, an FAA Center of Excellence. My research focuses on decision-making frameworks at the science-policy interface and investigating the impacts of global policies on air quality, climate change, and noise pollution.

9 thoughts on “Mercury Poisoning in Popular Culture

  1. Anjuli

    Hi Phil! To add to your collection of pop culture reference to mercury poisoning: in the new British television show “Sherlock”, Season 2, The Reichenbach Falls, Moriarty plans to kill some kids over time using mercury and he wont even need to be present for the deaths. (Moriarty’s attempted mercury poisioning, it seems, is not entirely unlike the current emitters’ and their victims).

    Reply
    1. Philip WolfePhilip Wolfe Post author

      Thanks Anjuli! This was not on my radar as I haven’t gotten past Season 1 of Sherlock yet. What a great example, and it seems to be similar to the evil scheme in the episode “Minamata” from The 11th Hour. I will definitely check this out ASAP.

      It has also come to my attention by another reader that there is a Season 2 episode of Grey’s Anatomy (“Begin the Begin”) in which a struggling writer gets mercury poisoning after he eats his own novel. I cannot speak for any of the scientific and medical accuracy of that episode. I know that mercury has been used in caustic soda production in the paper industry, but I haven’t seen the show yet to know if that is the implied mercury pathway.

      Reply
  2. James Meinert

    Great write up Phillip! In case you missed the 2009 documentary film The Cove, I highly recommend quitting the books for a few hours to see it! The film heavily features mercury poisoning. It shows incredibly moving footage of the Minamata incident and implicates current day environmental exposure pathways from dolphin and porpoise meat. The film was universally acclaimed by major film critics in the United States and won best documentary at many major film festivals in 2009. In 2010, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film and at the 2010 Writers Guild Awards won Best Documentary Screenplay. The film was incredibly controversial in Japan and became the center of a freedom of speech debate that was extremely volatile, to the point where many public officials who had been featured in the film sued the film producers in an effort to disassociate themselves from the public scandal and division over the film. As far as raising awareness about mercury poisoning among the general American Public, I would say being featured along with pathways explained in an Oscar winning documentary is up there!
    Here’s to hoping for a good treaty in Geneva!

    Reply
  3. Rima Sestokas

    Well done, very interesting. I, too, was going to reference the “Sherlock” and “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes, but, alas, someone beat me to it! Mercury poisoning has made it back onto my lowly medical student differential diagnosis of weird medical problems.

    Reply
  4. Shreya

    In a slightly different sphere, I think the dangers of mercury in compact fluorescent lightbulbs have been overstated. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that with proper recycling, CFLs pose little danger to the public. A broken CFL does not require an EHS crew, though it should be cleaned up. A few years ago, there was pushback against these bulbs, not for providing a different quality of light, but because they were considered hazardous. How is it that the same compound has a totally different response depending on the delivery method.

    Unrelated, there was a power plant in Maine that discussed using mercury as a working fluid because of its physical properties. Usually water is used as a working fluid and I think this plant ran into permitting issues. I’m not sure the public was ever involved but I don’t have a good source for that other than my thermo professor.

    Reply
    1. Philip WolfePhilip Wolfe Post author

      Thanks Shreya. Issues of CFLs are covered elsewhere on this blog in issues of products and processes and mercury waste. From Bethany Edwards post on Products overview (http://mercurypolicy.scripts.mit.edu/blog/?p=329) :

      While the mercury in each CFL has declined from 50mg to 2mg in the last three decades, 13% of the mercury contained in CFLs still makes its way into the environment over a product’s lifetime. Recycling bulbs properly and using protective packaging in transit can reduce releases into the environment. However, consumers should consider how their electricity source may influence net mercury emissions. If you live in an area powered by a coal, using CFL bulbs can decrease your carbon footprint and reduce the mercury being emitted into the atmosphere by reducing the amount of coal burned (remember, coal burning is one of the largest sources of mercury). But if you live in an area powered by hydroelectric energy, replacing all your traditional incandescent bulbs with CFLs will reduce your energy consumption but actually increase your mercury emissions.

      Also check out Danya and Mark’s discussions on waste treatment for more information.

      Reply
  5. Andy

    I had no idea mercury could be so entertaining! If Hollywood reads this blog they will surely realize the unrealized potential of mercury as villain. I also find it amazing that mercury was never the final diagnisis in any House episode.

    Reply

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