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Blue Water

​Professor Karen Wetterhahn's Death Caused by Mercury

     On January 20, 1997, 48-year-old Karen Wetterhahn was sent to the hospital. She suffered from hearing and visual impairment, slurred speech, and was unable to walk normally. Before being sent to the hospital, she had experienced nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain for several months.

    Karen worked at Dartmouth College and was a professor of chemistry who studied toxicology. In November 1996, when she was doing an experiment in the laboratory, she accidentally spilled dimethylmercury, and two drops of dimethylmercury stained her latex protective gloves. She quickly took off her gloves to clean her hands. Because of wearing gloves for a long time, her hands were covered with sweat, and it was impossible to determine whether the liquid on her hands was sweat or dimethylmercury. But even though she took emergency protective measures in the shortest time and was exposed to only a small dose of dimethylmercury, the accident had already caused serious injury to her.

    A few weeks after the incident, Karen's body changed. When she walked, she often hit the wall. Her vision became increasingly blurred, and her fingers often felt tingling.

    The doctor checked Karen's blood and found that the mercury content in Karen's blood was as high as 4000 micrograms per liter. The mercury content per liter of blood of ordinary people generally does not exceed 7.2 micrograms. Mercury poisoning is defined as containing more than 50 micrograms of mercury per liter of blood. Karen's blood mercury content had reached 80 times the critical value of mercury poisoning.

    Karen died on June 8, 1997. The autopsy results showed that her brain was full of organic mercury, and the concentration of organic mercury in the brain was 6 times that of organic mercury in the blood.

    Karen's death got high attention of government regulators, and industry insiders realized that the existing mercury protection measures were not enough to protect experimenters. Now, experimenters must wear a pair of high-protection laminated polymer gloves and a pair of long nitrile rubber gloves on the outer layer before using dimethylmercury.

Structure of Dimethylmercury


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