“The Hatter” (Alice In Wonderland)

 

Jervis Tetch/The Mad Hatter (Batman)

 

What makes a person “mad as a hatter?” The phrase, which suggests the person is suffering from insanity, has its origin in early-19th century England, decades before Lewis Carroll wrote his classic Alice In Wonderland in 1865:

It is believed to emanate from Denton, Tameside in the North of England where men in the area predominantly worked in the hattery business which used mercury in the hat making process. Mercury poisoning causes symptoms similar to madness and death often occurred with the accumulation of mercury in the body…

In 18th and 19th century England mercury was used in the production of felt, which was used in the manufacturing of hats common of the time. A late 19th-century example of the effect occurred with hatters in Danbury, Connecticut who developed a condition known locally as the Danbury Shakes. The condition was characterized by slurred speech, tremors, stumbling, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations

 

Mercury (Hg, atomic number 80) is a heavy metal element that exists naturally within Earth’s crust. We discovered how mercury enters the environment, and one important way it enters our bodies, two years ago on The PediaBlog:

It enters into our environment in two key ways. The first is by nature, mostly from volcanic activity, accounting for about half of the mercury that comes into play. The second way mercury enters our ecosystem comes from human activities. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) are also contained in the Earth’s crust. When they are mined, drilled for, and burned, mercury comes with them and enters the atmosphere, falling quickly into the water where fish live. Because of this natural and man-made mercury pollution, practically all fish contain at least some mercury. Big fish eat little fish, bigger fish eat big fish, and mercury bioaccumulates to the point where some fish (especially some really big varieties) have unsafe levels. Too much mercury can have profound adverse effects on the human brain and nervous system.

 

David A. Olson, M.D. gets science-y:

Organic mercury compounds, specifically methylmercury, are concentrated in the food chain. Fish from contaminated waters are the most common culprits. Industrial mercury pollution is often in the inorganic form, but aquatic organisms and vegetation in waterways such as rivers, lakes, and bays convert it to deadly methylmercury. Fish eat contaminated vegetation, and the mercury becomes biomagnified in the fish. Fish protein binds more than 90% of the consumed methylmercury so tightly that even the most vigorous cooking methods (eg, deep-frying, boiling, baking, pan-frying) cannot remove it.

 

Exposure through ingestion, inhalation of mercury vapors, and absorption through the skin can result in mercury poisoning. Once in the body, mercury’s destinations include the nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, and the kidneys. Neurologic damage results in extremity numbness, weakness, and tremors, facial muscle weakness, ataxia (loss of balance), and loss of vision and hearing. Neuropsychiatric symptoms may make victims of mercury poisoning seem truly “mad as a hatter” by exhibiting the feeling that small insects are crawling on or under the skin, sweating and salivating profusely, and demonstrating memory impairment, insomnia, and emotional lability.

As is the case with practically every other exposure to toxic elements and chemicals in the environment, fetuses, infants, and children are most vulnerable for having the worst health impacts:

Babies exposed in utero are the most severely affected. They are affected by low birth weight, seizure disorders, profound developmental delay, incomplete visual loss (including tunnel vision) or total blindness, and hearing loss.

Neurologic damage in the form of diffuse and widespread neuronal atrophy is most severe in patients exposed in utero. Long-term studies may indicate that even prenatal exposure at low concentrations can cause subtle, but detectable, decrements in the areas of motor function, language, and memory.

Children so affected may have long-term stigmata, including motor impairment, visual loss, hearing loss, developmental delay, and seizure disorders.

 

Since the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, mercury emissions from coal-fired, electricity-generating plants have been reduced by 85%. The monetary and health savings from reducing mercury and other toxic air pollutants like particulate matter are measured in dollars and lives. It is estimated that the $18 billion investment by utilities to clean up these emissions thus far has resulted in more than $80 billion saved in healthcare costs and more than 11,000 lives. Last month, however, the EPA announced plans to roll back yet another environmental protection ensuring Americans’ right to clean air and water by rescinding the mercury rule, concluding that “the benefits to human health and the environment may not be worth the cost of the regulation.” (National Geographic keeps a running list here of the Trump administration’s assault on environmental laws, rules, and standards in the U.S. in just two short years.)  The EPA thinks the savings in money and lives aren’t worth it, reports Ellen Knickmeyer:

[The EPA] calculates that the crackdown on mercury and other toxins from coal plants produced only a few million dollars a year in measurable health benefits and was not “appropriate and necessary” — a legal benchmark under the country’s landmark Clean Air Act.

 

Apparently, it’s not worth asking polluting industries and utilities to pay for cleaning up the messes they make and maybe saving the life of you or a loved one. The administration and its enablers want you to think that there is somehow a balance between economic growth (often someone else’s money) and environmental and public health protection (ie. your and your children’s health). What we have found out to be true about our fossil-fuel-reliant economy and its impact on the environment, the ecosystem, the planet’s climate system, and our health is that there is no balance after all. As toxic pollution and greenhouse gases accumulate faster than ever as a result of increasing emissions, and researchers learn of the health, environmental, and climate impacts from these emissions, it is evident that there never was a balance to begin with. People who want us to believe otherwise are simply “mad as a hatter.”