Chugging A Pound Of Mercury Is Fine, It Seems
In 2016, a three-year-old child in Libya drank 750 grams (1.5 pounds) of mercury. His uncle kept the substance in the home, since he worked in silver processing. The kid found it stored there and drank just about the whole bottle, which was about one-third the size of a juice box.
His family rushed him to a clinic, which gave him penicillin and started a process to flush his stomach out. Neither of these treatments actually would have helped his condition at all, so his parents thankfully transferred him to a different clinic, which documented the case. Over the course of the next week, laxatives helped the toddler move the mercury from inside his body to inside his diaper.
Throughout this time, doctors ran every kind of test of the boy, and they all showed he was healthy and asymptomatic. The only test that picked up anything was the X-ray, which of course showed a large but decreasing quantity of mercury in his guts.
So, was this some kind of miracle baby, who survived the unsurvivable? Not really. The case was remarkable because few people ever drink so much mercury, but it all went down pretty much the way doctors would expect. Only a tiny percentage of any mercury you happen to ingest makes its way into your blood. The Libyan boy’s blood mercury levels rose to 91 µg/L ... which is 20 times the normal level but still not very much, and means he only absorbed like one ten-millionth of what he drank. Mercury is simply too slippery for you to absorb much through your intestines (unless you have an ulcer or some other cut there—then you’ll be in trouble). Drinking mercury doesn’t poison you.
That’ll surprise you if you’ve already heard that mercury in food is extremely poisonous. But you’re thinking not of that metallic liquid known as mercury but of methylmercury, a toxic mercury compound that can build up in seafood. You might have also heard the story of how hatters went mad by working with elemental mercury. That story’s true, but they suffered brain damage from breathing mercury fumes—as would you. Injecting mercury would also be risky, in case you were considering that for some reason. But drinking? Drinking’s fine.
Personally, we’ll avoid recommending breaking open a thermometer and sucking up the shiny stuff inside. Officially, though? That mercury going in your belly is non-toxic.
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