Mercury is a liquid metal that reflects how ecological accounting,
externalities, and waste informs
"Mercury is a heavy metal that is liquid at room
temperature." It was, because of its shining viscosity, that mercury
was referred to as quicksilver in the ancient world.
Ehrlich, Ehrlich, & Holdren, 1976, p.
Mercury is vaporized (into the air) at relatively low
temperatures forming a "colorless, odorless and tasteless"
Zumdahl and Zumdahl, p. 1020.
Many of the applications where it is used suggest that
"mercury is recyclable in principle."
"By how much have the activities of civilization
altered the natural flows of mercury through the environment?"
Ehrlich, Ehrlich, & Holdren, 1976,
Trace elements are materials that
are small in matter but have great importance on wide scales.
"The mercury content of coal varies widely, ...ranging
from .01 PPM to 33 PPM by weight."
In studies of one coal fired electrical generating plant,
"It was shown...that more than 90 percent of the mercury went up
the stack and less than 10 percent remains in the bottom ash."
"The mercury content of petroleum is even less
well measured....it was found to be 10 PPM in one (probably exceptional)
Mercury content of the Greenland ice sheets has been measured
to reveal the prehuman accumulations in the atmosphere as deposited by
rain and snow in Pleistocene times and earlier epochs.
1000 metric tons per year was once considered the "natural
background" or ambient level of mercury prior to industrial civilization.
From 1950-1970, for example, "a doubling in the mercury
content of precipitation," was "suggested by ice samples from
the Greenland ice sheet."
Varieties of mercury:
mercuric sulfide, (HgS ---> HgS04)
phenyl, methyl, methyloxyethyl mercury. methyl (CH3Hg+)
"It was discovered in 1969 that microorganisms widespread
in sediments are capable of forming methyl mercury and dimethyl mercury
from inorganic mercury compounds"
The capacity of soil organisms to "fix" inorganic
mercury vapor or salts into soluble, or organic mercury available to living
creatures "has made mercury poisoning from high levels of methyl
mercury in fish so serious a threat."
In addition to industrial chemical processes (caustic
soda making) mercury is a by product -- quite literally-- an externality
of the electricity generating process.
The use of oil and coal adds as much as two to four times
the mass of mercury to the ambient or existing natural background load
of inorganic mercury. Soil, mud or submerged organisms, by converting
inorganic into organic mercury make some portion of this increased load
available to consumers of plankton, algae, or other plants and bacteria.
Biotic considerations include: (or biological
magnification) "pollutants may be...stored in the bodies of
an organism and passed on up the food chain in a process called biological
The chemical is stored in the body of the predator, where
the successive doses accumulate and become more concentrated....Thus,
the concentration of the toxin amplified at each link in the food chain.
Because heavy metals are toxic to many organisms at even small concentrations...."
Mark Bush, p. 278.
Designed to fail?
"Ecological design is not bound to a particular scale.
It provides a way of uniting diverse design perspectives --and the different
scales they represent-- and testing them against strong ecological constraints."
"New glazing technologies, appropriate choices of
building materials, and sensible solar siting can together eliminate the
need for a conventional heating system."
Sim Van der Ryn, 1996, page 44.
characteristic scale of acid rain.
"Isn't the true scale the of acid rain
molecular, embedded in the intricate process chemistry of coal
Acid rain involves the flow of various contaminants
across many levels of scale."
We have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly
defined human interests but have neglected its relationship with our fellow
creatures. Such myopic design cannot fail to degrade the living world,
and by extension our own health."
"Ecological design,...provides specific ways of minimizing
energy and materials use, reducing pollution, preserving habitat, and
fostering community, health, and beauty."
A designer is anyone "involved in shaping the physical
details of our daily experience." p. 8.
"Dumb design is wasteful of energy and resources.
It is polluting, extravagant, and profoundly dangerous. Unfortunately
we are surrounded by it." p. 10.
Just how much mercury exposure is harmful,
over what duration and in what form?
US standard for mercury exposure was first based on experience
with the felt for hats and later electronics industries.
Air concentration: comparing
US and Russian minimal tolerances, respectively.
100.0 micrograms of inorganic mercury per
cubic meter / 8 hour period
.01 micrograms of
inorganic mercury per cubic meter / 24
Ehrlich, Ehrlich, Holdren, 1977, p. 573.
Matrix based on a Spectrum
"A tentative standard for mercury in drinking water
has been set (in 1970s) at 5 ppb." *
Uncertainty persists with regard to the mercury pollution
problem because it is a natural component carried along by living systems
and is recycled from inorganic to organic forms by bacterial organisms
and made available to consumer creatures.
Mercury vapor is the most serious threat; when inhaled
it passes the alveoli - blood barrier in the lungs and elemental mercury
enters the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream "the mercury (HgO)
cation can denature proteins (break them up) inhibit enzyme activity and
disrupt cell membranes." Once this occurs, "Death often results
from kidney or respiratory failure."
1 microgram per cubic meter = 1 part per billion (ppb)
Ehrlich, Ehrlich, Holdren, 1977, p. 573.
Chemistry, Zumdahl and Zumdahl, (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 2003). p. 1020.
Ecology of a Changing Planet, Mark B. Bush. (NJ:
Prentice Hall, 2000), pp. 279-285.
Ecoscience: Population, Resources and Environment.
Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren. ( SF, Ca.: W.H. Freeman,
1977). pp. 567-573.
Sim Van der Ryn & Stuart Cowen. (Covelo, Ca.: Island Press, 1996).
G. Tyler Miller, Environmental Science.
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