John Oliver seems quite taken by Danbury, Connecticut’s history as the Hat City, but hatmaking came at a price: the mercury used to make felt for hats caused mercury poisoning. The resulting tremors were even nicknamed “the Danbury shakes.” But while Connecticut banned mercury for hatmaking, the mercury previously emitted never actually left the environment, and new sources of mercury such coal plants and artisanal and small-scale gold mines are still putting new mercury into the atmosphere, leading to catastrophic environmental, economic, and human health impacts. Today, we break down why we’re exposed to mercury, what effects it has, and how we can improve. With special guest Dr. Noelle Eckley Selin: Associate Professor of Data, Systems, and Society and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the co-author of Mercury Stories: Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element which comes out on October 20th.
As someone who loves putting a fun, or at least nuanced, twist on environmental issues, toxics like mercury can be really demoralizing to me. It feels like I’m getting poisoned and not only can I not help it, but I don’t even realize it. That’s a sucky feeling, and had me a bit less excited about this episode going in.
But here’s what’s exciting about mercury: not only have we already taken a lot of action, but we’ve basically found ways to do everything we’d normally use mercury for without it. You can mine gold without mercury. You can generate cheap energy without mercury. And the economic and health benefits by making these changes are absolutely staggering. Dr. Selin’s study that actually quantified those economic benefits was such a fantastic project, and I’m glad we could see those numbers to truly understand not just that mercury reductions would help the economy, but that it was specifically a $339,000,000,000 benefit. That’s huge!
While we only barely touched on it in the episode, the misconceptions about mercury as a magical element with healing powers interested me too as someone dedicated to making decisions using scientific data. Not only does mercury not have healing powers, but it has really really bad health impacts. People have actually used mercury to try to cure symptoms that mercury poisoning causes! While that’s just a tiny fraction of the issue, it’s one I definitely hope to learn more about.
Many of the historical uses of mercury are really interesting, and if you want to learn more, I definitely recommend checking out Dr. Selin’s book. Her and her husband Henrik Selin, who was the expert on our UNEP episode, co-wrote the book, and I couldn’t be more honored that they’re the first couple who have both appeared on The Sweaty Penguin. I’m excited to check out the book when it comes out on October 20th, and I’m glad we could get a sneak preview!
Thanks for listening!