In 1959 Who Would Have Cared?

I heard on the news today that a school in Buchanan Michigan was closed and all the students were evacuated because one of them spilled 2cc’s of mercury on the floor.  A hazmat team was called in from out of town and the students were forced to leave their shoes at school for further testing. 5 students in close proximity to the spill were taken to the hospital in an ambulance and detained for observation.

Hearing about all this and the uproar it caused I’m reminded of a simpler time growing up in the Hill Country when no one would have cared. In the late 50s, about the time I entered junior high, mercury was considered a “cool thing to play with”. In the 50’s and sometime into the 60’s you could go to any drug store and buy it over the counter. 2 cc’s of mercury is a blob about the size of a Lima bean and in those days would cost you about a quarter so it was easy for us to get our hands on it. Several of my friends and I often carried our own vial of it around and I remember it was more than once displayed and handled in class with the teacher being part of the discussion.

This was shortly after the time they discovered that asbestos was causing cancer and nobody was yet aware or concerned about health issues with mercury. Nowadays no one would think about holding a blob of mercury in their hands so it’s a sensation that’s hard for younger folks to imagine. As I recall It’s a little like trying to pass a liquid Slinky toy from hand to hand. It’s extremely heavy for it’s mass and it feels a bit like liquid lead might if it could be liquid at room temperature.

One of the unique properties of Mercury is that it will adhere to copper. You could take a quarters worth of mercury and coat a couple of hundred copper pennies with it. It didn’t take us long to figure out that a mercury coated penny looked a whole lot like a dime. Not saying I ever did this but many an adolescent took advantage of the fact that if a soda jerk wasn’t paying real close attention, you could buy a nickle ice cream cone with a mercury coated penny and get a nickle back.

In later years I remember we used a lot of something called “Mercury Compound” in the Printing industry to thin our inks down. I would often dip my finger in the jar and smear a little of it on the rollers. We also used real gasoline to wash our rollers and clean all our machines back then. Folks back then were mildly aware that lead was harmful and could be absorbed through the skin. For that reason we always used something called “white gas” that was available at a lot of gas stations. I’m not real sure but I think it was pretty much like unleaded today only with no additives whatsoever. I guess that made it completely safe to pour on running machines with electrical switches and exposed brushes on the motors. We never kept more than 5 gallons of it at a time near the presses though.

As I reflect back on what were “unknown hazards” at the time I don’t recall any of my classmates ever having an adverse reaction from playing with mercury. I can’t help but feel the handling of this spill in Michigan may have been a little extreme. When doing a search on Google for students & mercury this seems to be a fairly common occurrence now and several hazmat teams have been called to schools all over to clean up small spills of mercury. I’d like to put the word out that I’ve had experience in dealing with this material. If this happens near you just let me know. I’ll bring my dust pan and whisk broom and take care of for far less than your nearest hazmat team.


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