Archives of Ask A Scientist!

About "Ask A Scientist!"

On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 28 November, 2001 Next Week's Question
Handle mercury with caution
Question
Is it safe to touch mercury bare handed? Are you going to be poisoned if you touch it?

Question
Mercury, the only common metal that is a liquid at room temperature, has been known and used since ancient times (1500 BC). The simple answer to your question is no, you will not be poisoned if you touch mercury bare handed.

BUT . . ..

Mercury-containing materials are usually extremely toxic. The most toxic forms of mercury are: the vapor created when liquid mercury is heated and most of the compounds formed when mercury combines with other elements. Elemental (liquid) mercury, however, is quite inert; it does not react with many other materials. One possible complication of touching mercury would be that it comes into contact with an open wound, introducing the mercury into the blood stream. This could create severe health problems.

A major source of mercury contamination 'in the wild' results from the use of mercury to remove metallic gold from the ores that contain it. Mercury forms an amalgam with gold (very similar to the mercury-silver amalgams used in dental fillings). This dissolves the gold out of the mixture of rock and soil it is found with in nature. The gold is then removed from the amalgam by boiling away the mercury. The mercury is recovered for reuse when this is done in an enclosed apparatus; in the wild, however, prospectors simply allow the extremely toxic mercury vapors to escape into the atmosphere, poisoning themselves and the surrounding environment.

Two compounds containing mercury, mercurochrome and merthiolate, have long been used as antibacterial agents. I remember my parents applying these medications to my cuts and scratches when I was a child to prevent infections.

Mercury, like most things in nature, is neither all bad nor all good; the bad far outweighs the good for mercury. It is important when working with mercury or any other potentially hazardous material that you understand the hazards involved before handling it. It is also wise to consider both the risks and the benefits of your actions. Although the chances of being poisoned by touching liquid mercury are very low, how would this action benefit you? My recommendation would be to wear thin gloves if you want to get the "feel" of this material.