The Mad Hatter, The Lorax and the dangers of mercury

The recent mercury spill at San Juan Basin Health Department was a learning experience.

We appreciate Durango Fire & Rescue Authoriy’s hazmat team and the Environmental Protection Agency for their careful and thorough handling of the situation. This incident highlighted what potential dangers to human health may result from an acute exposure. It also prompted thinking about health threats resulting from chronic mercury exposure in the environment.

Mercury in the workplace has some history. During our cleanup, the hazmat commander noticed a photo in my office of my daughter posing in Las Vegas with the Mad Hatter (the Johnny Depp version). It had a serendipitous connection as the Mad Hatter’s behaviors and the 19th-century phrase “mad as a hatter” are said to be a result of felt hat-makers’ exposure to mercury vapors. It affected their health. More than 100 years later, the U.S. Public Health Service banned the use of mercury in the felt industry.

Mercury exists in various forms, and people are exposed in different ways. The most common way that people are exposed to mercury in the U.S., according to the EPA, is by eating fish containing methylmercury. Power plants are currently the dominant emitters of mercury – some of which enters waterways.

“Within a few generations during which we’ve used coal, our fresh water fish have been basically adulterated,” says San Juan Basin’s Environmental Health Director Mike Meschke.

San Juan Basin Health is charged with not only safeguarding the public’s health through services such as immunizations and public education, but also through assuring protection of the environment.

“My concern,” Meschke said, “is what we could lose in the next generation if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing to our environment now.”

Many remember the Japanese Minamata disease tragedy (1956-68) with more than 3,000 people suffering various deformities, severe mercury poisoning and death caused by decades of mercury pollution in a bay. In 1997, a governmental report said: “Japan has learned a very important lesson on how activities that place priority on the economy, but lacks consideration for the environment can cause grave damage to health and environment ...We sincerely hope that Japan’s experience can be utilized as a vital lesson by other countries.”

In the U.S., a new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule passed in December.

The EPA says, “continuing to improve our air quality with MATS means the difference between being sick and being healthy – in some cases, life and death – for hundreds of thousands of people.

“For every dollar spent to reduce this pollution, Americans get $3 to $9 in health benefits while providing important health protections to the most vulnerable, like children and older Americans.”

Over time, it will help reduce the levels of mercury in lake fish.

This rule is just one small piece of the EPA’s Mercury Roadmap. There are other government efforts such as Mercury-Free Colorado and nonprofit groups working on mercury and environmental protection as well as people who write to their legislators, speak up at meetings, dispose of materials such as mercury properly and take time to inform themselves and to care.

For those who treasure Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (now at the movies) as an environmental cautionary tale, this caring “a whole awful lot” and action is appreciated.

For resources about mercury visit these websites:;;

“Tribute to The Lorax (the book)”

We had a spill,

Thankfully no one got ill.

We ripped up carpets and tested,

And retested until ...

We could reopen per EPA’s will.

While some didn’t understand the fuss

Others were concerned and wanted to discuss

What health impacts were there

And what type of care

Did we need to protect our workplace

Our air, our lakes, our human race!

Because mercury and other toxics have a history

Of causing environmental and human health misery.

Yet how small, how close and how long must it be –

To expose a real danger to creatures and thee.

That answer may be as simple and true

As The Lorax’s own words to me and to you!

For many of us, the Lorax did instill

A message, a challenge, an unselfish will.

One word to young and old that resonates still.

His answer to our environmental distress?

Unless ...

Jane Looney is the communications director for the San Juan Basin Health Department.