July 17, 2011

Banned: The Mercury Thermometer



Oct. 7, 1791: We lifted anchor at 6 am and had a contrary wind…At noon the thermometer marked 55 degrees…Oct. 8: We lifted anchor at 6 am with a wind not quite as bad as evening before…at 11:30 and the thermometer is 59 degrees. Stormy weather and wind from the south west…Oct. 9: They lifted anchor at 8 a. m. with the high tide…at 11:30… The thermometer marks 50 degrees; rain wind from the southwest.

Oct 16: The thermometer marks 39 degrees…At 8:00 p. m. returned and went to bed. Good weather the whole day but cold. An hour after a clumsy person touched the thermometer and we all saw it fall and break.

Oct  17: At 3 a.m…We’ve been deprived of the thermometer so we can no longer give you the certain results of the temperature but we continue to make our observations in comparison from the days past. Winds from the NW this morning and the cold ice (a line and a half of ice).  At noon a bad wind, hail and snow. It just passed through. The same temperature about for the rest of the day.

     Madame Rosalie de Leval was a refugee of the French Revolution who had a tentative contract with land speculators Gen. Henry Knox and Col. William Duer to purchase a large tract of land in Downeast Maine—current day Hancock and Washington counties. It was 1791.

     The contract was tentative because Madame wanted to examine the land before she finalized the purchase. The excerpt above is from the journal she kept of her visit to Downeast Maine for this purpose.

     As can be seen, she was meticulous about recording the temperatures during her travels. However, oops, an oaf dropped the thermometer, and she could only estimate the temperature after that incident.

     What happened to the thermometer? Did Madame, the oaf, or someone else pick up the mercury with their bare hands? Was the thermometer and its contents disposed of by being tossed into the water of the Narrows or Frenchman Bay? Was she, or anyone else, aware that to do so was to pollute the waters with mercury?


     Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer in 1714. French emigrants who purchased the invalid Ohio deeds included craftsmen in thermometer making. In 1792 a visitor to Gallipolis wrote We rode to the French settlement of Gallipolis, situated on the north bank of the Ohio, between three and four miles from the Kanawha… The worker in glass seemed to be a born artist. He made us a thermometer, a barometer…


     Perhaps you have a mercury thermometer in your medicine cabinet. I know I still do. But by the time Fahrenheit’s thermometer reaches three hundred years of age, it will be extinct. As of  March 1, 2011, retail sales of these thermometers in a wide variety of industries (as well as many other measuring devices, thermostats and switches, using mercury) have been banned or restricted in at least eighteen states. This action is spreading across the country.*

       On February 28, 2011, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, ended their mercury thermometer calibration services taking (other regulatory steps that would limit the use of these mercury-based products and provide alternatives).

     All this is being done due to the high toxicity of elemental mercury, according to Dale Kemery, EPA spokesman. Vapors from the substance can cause permanent damage to the brain, kidneys and a developing fetus. Brain damage can result in irritability, behavioral changes, tremors, changes in vision, hearing and memory problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


     That mercury is dangerous is demonstrated by the term mad hatter: Johnny Depp is the Mad Hatter in the March 5, 2010, release of the 3-D film, Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton. Depp said his Hatter’s springy mass of tangerine hair is a particularly important detail because of one of the suspected origins of the term “mad as a hatter:” mercury, used in the manufacture of felt and felt hats, can be absorbed through the skin, causing both physical and brain damage. The mercury use in 1865, when Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published, had an orange tint.

     Mercury is a cumulative poison. Its physical symptoms include kidney damage, loosening of teeth, loss of coordination, slurred speech and trembling—known in early America as “hatter’s shakes”. The mental symptoms, labeled “mad hatter syndrome,” include irritability, loss of memory, depression, anxiety, and other personality changes.***


     I myself  recall, on several occasions in the past, dropping a mercury thermometer. I gathered up the balls of mercury that scattered across the floor and tossed them into the trash, where they could pollute the ground.

     Back then, this wasn’t a concern. Today it is a major concern.

     By the time the mercury thermometer celebrates its three hundredth birthday, it will be almost extinct. By 1916 it will be officially extinct. As of today, Miller & Weber in Queens, New York (the only Untied States manufacturer of mercury thermometers) is working towards phasing out mercury thermometers and replacing them with more advanced products.

      Will the new products be as reliable as the familiar mercury thermometer? Perhaps they won’t—or perhaps they will prove to be better.

     Either way, change is in the forecast and we had, and we had better get used to it. After all, it is not only for our good, but for the good of the environment.




***Mad Hatters, Johnny Depp, and Alice in Wonderland



Fear of Death? Or Fear of the Way of Death?

The fickleness of life and weather

How to Make a Beaver Fur Hat




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