Mad Hatters: Saving the World
Or: Potential applications of strategies from an institutional mercury
reduction campaign to develop a national public health initiative for
reducing human exposure.
Howard Fawcett Award Acceptance Speech
Captain Edward H. Rau
Division of Environmental Protection
Office of Research Facilities
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892-5746
U.S. Department of Health and Human
A Tip of the Hat*
I am deeply, deeply honored to be the recipient of this award.
The Mad as a Hatter? Mercury Free Campaign initiated at the
National Institutes of Health has received recognitions from
several sources, including a citation from the Governor of
But none are as important to me as this award, bestowed by my
friends and colleagues in the American Chemical Society’s
Division of Chemical Health and Safety.
*The speaker was in costume
Speaker’s Disability Disclaimer
Some of you may not know why our mercury reduction campaign
was named after the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s classic story
of Alice in Wonderland, written in 1865.
Demand for these tall hats became so big in the mid 1800s that
hatters started making them out of less expensive materials like
wool instead of beaver fur.
To make the hats stiff and shiny, hatters used secret chemical
recipes in the forming process, which was called secretage or
At one time, the recipe used camel urine,* but later this ingredient
was replaced with mercurous nitrate.
The new recipe created good hats, but it made the hatters forgetful,
sleepless, confused, distracted and gave them tremors.
Since many of the hat factories were located around Danbury,
Connecticut the hatters’ disability was sometimes called the
*This ingredient is still scarce around Connecticut, but severe mercury pollution from the
factories is still present in 2005.
As immortalized by Carroll in his classic tale, I’ll
begin with a quote from another famous
hatter, an acquaintance of Alice who was
having a bit of trouble trying to recite a
"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!“
"Up above the world you fly,
‘’Like a tea-tray in the sky.
Was this just…
A failed attempt to by the Hatter to remember and
recite a nursery rhyme correctly?
Lines written for a fictional character to fit a story line?
---Or symptoms of something else.
Maybe it should be interpreted as one of two warnings about
the effects of mercury exposure that can be heard in Alice’s
A Second Warning from
You better listen this time - it’s about all of you…
"In that direction," the Cheshire Cat said, waving its right
paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving
the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like:
they're both mad."
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here.
I'm mad. You're mad."
Today, the Cat May be Right
All of you may be going mad…
Releases of mercury to the environment are 5 to 6 times higher than they
were before the industrial era.
It’s bioaccumulating in wildlife - not just the fish – even the song birds of
Vermont according to a recent study.
CDC data show about 10% of women of childbearing age have body
burdens that may be unsafe for the developing fetus, resulting in learning
deficiencies and delayed mental development.
Mercury may have an association with the increased incidence of autism.
New information suggests there may be other impacts on adults as well –
subtle neurological changes, insomnia and associations with
---This is what our campaign platform is about:
Most of you attended the 2003 CHAS meeting in New Orleans
where I presented the campaign and its decommissioning and
public outreach initiatives so I won’t repeat all that detail here.
It began as a voluntary initiative at the National Institutes of
Health, in Bethesda, MD with primary goals of encouraging
employees to use mercury-free devices and reagents to reduce
potential for spills, occupational exposures and pollution. Soon
all of NIH joined. And then some other agencies.
Community outreach was originally intended as a minor
element of the campaign, part of our campaign kick-off
But my theme and messages proved more popular with the
public than even a Mad Hatter could imagine.
Probably set a precedent for an institutional Chemical Health
and Safety program going public!
Since 2003 ACS DivCHAS meeting:
Tens of thousands more participants: website visitors,
attendees at health fairs, presentations, thermometer
exchanges, pledges made.
Mercury spills have been a huge problem in schools throughout
the land, so we hosted a national video webcast workshop on
mercury reduction and pollution prevention in schools in
partnership with EPA, Maryland environmental and educational
agencies, and universities.
We shared campaign tools with the UN Environment
Programme (UNEP) mercury initiative. A campaign summary
presentation is on the UNEP website.
Completed several major laboratory facility decommissioning
projects involving mercury decontamination - working with MIT,
Harvard, HHMI to develop consensus standards.
Lesson #1 (Most Important)
Hatters Are Good Teachers
OUR FIRST STUDENTS WERE JUST SLOW LEARNERS:
1860 - the first of several major studies confirmed mercury was
1865 - Alice (of Wonderland) had a tea party and noticed something
was wrong with the Hatter but didn’t know what it was.
1925 - Another Alice (Hamilton) knew what was wrong and devoted an
entire chapter to the hat industry in her classic work, Industrial
Poisons in the United States.
1941 - Use of mercury in hat making was finally banned by the U.S.
Public Health Service.
Think Out of the Hatbox
Chemical Health and Safety professionals shouldn’t spend all of
their prevention efforts on occupational exposures in
institutional environments such as labs (and hat factories).
A more holistic approach as practiced in the campaign is needed
to protect employees from health and safety hazards of chemicals
like mercury because:
Unlike most lab chemicals, there are sources of significant acute
exposure outside occupational setting – in homes, schools etc.
Everyone has some level of chronic exposure from dietary intake -
for a significant fraction of the population it is already an over-
Mercury uptake is cumulative and toxic effects occur at very low
Don’t Rely on Occupational
Standards – They May Not Be
Better to Use Risk-Based Exposure Standards Established for the
OSHA regulations, exposure guidance by NIOSH and others are based on old data,
assume that workers are “healthy”, exposed only at work, and that they work only a
40 hour work week.
Workers in academia, health care and research often work longer hours than that –
they live in their labs.
Workers are not “healthy” - we know that about 1 of every 6 female workers of child
bearing age reports to work already overexposed to mercury.
Our built environment also houses patients, visitors and research animals who may
be much more sensitive to mercury than workers.
Proactive Approaches by Institutions are
Required to Cope with New Limits
`I can't go no lower,' said the Hatter: `I'm on the
floor, as it is.'
Allowed exposure and emissions limits for mercury are going lower and will
continue to drop in response to evidence of health and environmental
impairment at current limits.
A most extreme example: the discharge limit for wastewater from POTWs
in EPA Region 5 has been lowered to 1.5 parts per trillion.
POTWs that cannot meet these limits will be required to impose controls on
upstream sources, and labs will be specifically targeted in guidance for
developing required reduction plans.
Developing institutional strategies to meet these new limits will require a
proactive, long term approach and major commitments of resources.
Consider Impacts of Mercury Contamination
on the Facility’s Mission Activities
We are justifiably focused on the impacts of chemicals on health and safety in the
workplace. But what has been almost completely overlooked are potential
impacts of contaminants on the activities occurring in that environment – like
learning, experimentation and research.
Example: biomedical research, with its recently increasing emphasis on
infectious diseases and vaccine development.
Studies suggest that low levels of mercury are present as a contaminant in
many biomedical research laboratories – in the air, on surfaces of
equipment, casework and floors, and reagents in like methanol.
It can be a potent immunostimulant and suppressant, depending on
exposure dose and individual susceptibility and may increase susceptibility
to parasitic, bacterial, and viral infections.
The Lesson is Confirmed by
The immunotoxic effects of mercury – its capability to alter
immune responses in animals is the lowest dose/effect yet
described (0.4 µg/kg).
Example - subtoxic exposures to mercury have recently been shown to
enhance susceptibility and impair murine responses to parasitic diseases
such as leishmaniasis and Plasmodium yoelii infection.
In fact, it has been theorized that the resurgence of malaria (caused by
another species of Plasmodium) noted in Amazonia may be a result of
increased mercury emissions associated with mining activities in the
Mercury may interfere with biological processes at extremely low
levels and thus could alter the outcome of experiments performed
in mercury contaminated lab environments.
But what did the Dormouse say?' one of the jury
asked the Hatter. He couldn’t remember or didn’t
--Like that Hatter, we may not know what the
lab mice are saying.
Hatter’s New Campaign Platform
1. Use successful community outreach
approaches developed here as tools in
similar national and international
campaigns to reduce public exposure.
2. Focus the expanded campaigns on two
primary sources of exposure:
Excessive dietary uptake.
Prevent Acute Exposures to Vapors
by Eliminating Sources of Spills
Improve public awareness of mercury-containing
items and the hazards they pose.
Encourage replacement of mercury devices at work,
in schools and homes.
Facilitate proper disposal
Household hazardous waste collection sites.
Community thermometer exchanges.
Provide guidance on proper spill clean up methods
and links to resources for spill detection,
decontamination and disposal.
Reduce Chronic Exposure by
Increasing Awareness of Healthy Diet
Regardless of the pollution prevention approaches we employ,
significant reductions in mercury emissions and concentrations
in the food chain will take years to achieve.
Exposures can be reduced now by changing consumption
patterns of fish, the primary source of mercury exposure.
This will require delivery of a complex health education
Attain health benefits of eating more fish
Yet reduce risk of excessive mercury exposure by careful selection of
caught and purchased fish with lower mercury content.
Direct public to campaign website
Provide links to latest EPA-FDA dietary guidance and
State and local fish advisories (46 states affected)
How would it work?
Use the same methods as the NIH institutional campaign:
Copy and translate materials and methods from this and other
Methods are adaptable and easily scalable.
Use volunteers, public service ads and the Internet to deliver
No national public health problem of this magnitude has ever
been addressed for such a minimal investment:
Little additional funding required.
No new drugs need be developed.
No new regulations to be promulgated.
Continue Focus On Protecting Children
The unborn and very young children are at highest risk of
toxic effects from very low levels of exposure.
With its interesting properties and bright shiny appearance
older children are enticed to play with it. Getting the
mercury safety message to teachers, parents and children
Most reported spills in the U.S. are in schools.
Spills are difficult to clean up, may result in school closures
and extremely high clean-up and disposal costs.
Schools have limited funds and expertise for clean up.
Spills are easily preventable by eliminating mercury.
To be Successful I Need Your Help
As CHAS professionals you are uniquely qualified to lead
these efforts. Take the Hatter’s Pledge for the New
Build and reinvigorate partnerships - with public agencies,
non-governmental organizations, private sector.
Share limited resources more efficiently – your expertise,
case studies, mercury detection equipment, websites and
publicity tools. Maybe even costumes.
Work with school programs - Teach the teachers.
We must succeed in these efforts so our children can recite the rhyme
as it should be:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
With senses and intellect unimpaired,
Let them experience all the Wonder.
And discover what they are…
Hatter’s Final Privilege
Howard Fawcett Awardees have the privilege to invite a
speaker to the CHAS Awards symposium.
I invited Dr. Leo Trasande of the Center for Children’s Health
and the Environment at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine,
and an NIH grantee to present a summary of research
conducted by his team on the public health and economic
consequences of methylmercury on the developing brain.
You will find that the magnitude of just one impact of a single
mercury compound is astounding.
And it’s why my new campaign platform is so important and