Metalic Mercury toxicity

T. Lewandowski tlewando at u.washington.edu
Fri Sep 24 13:50:36 EST 1999

> If you're referring to Karen Wetterhahn, the compound was methyl mercury,
> not mercury itself.  I make the distinction because there is a difference
> in the degree and kind of safety precautions required to work with the two
> compounds, and because they are often confused in casual discussions of
> metal toxicity.

In fact, the compound was dimethylmercury, a particularly lipophillic and
readily absorbed form of mercury. As part of a group that works with
(mono)methylmercury, we were quite interested in the case. The
point that the form of mercury (and route of exposure) drastically affects
the toxicity is a good one though.  Apparently a single drop or two of
dimethylmercury absorbed through the gloves was enough to fatally poison
Dr. Wetterhahn whereas people have swallowed small amounts of elemental
mercury (e.g., from broken thermometers) without any apparent injury.
However, elemental mercury vapor, if inhaled, can be exceptionally toxic.

T. Lewandowski
University of Washington
Dept. Environmental Health

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