Americans of a certain age – I’m pushing 50 – may find something to chuckle at in this news report out of Boise Idaho, where an 11-person EPA hazmat team descended on a neighborhood – wearing blue moon suits, I imagine -- after some local kids were discovered playing with mercury. The newspaper’s breathless, blow-by-blow account reads like the outline of a techno-thriller, as though the EPA had been battling an outbreak of anthrax or Ebola. But all these kids were doing was something most kids of my generation did from time to time, with no ill effects that I’m aware of.
My friends and I handled – and, yes, played with – quicksilver at home and at school. I think I recall handling it in science class. And it was one of the coolest things a kid could do. The feel of that heavy liquid metal tumbling around in the palm of one’s hand, or spilling through one’s fingers, or seeing the luster it brought to a tarnished dime, was incredible. I asked my mother, who worked in a public school, to score some from a science teacher there, and she came through. No one thought anything of it. Today she’d be up on child endangerment charges.
Readers of a certain age probably recall similar experiences. This was the 1960s; a good and carefree time to be a child, before the EPA was even a glint in Dick Nixon’s eye and before the safety cultists came out in force. The American anxiety industry was just being born. We rode our bikes without helmets. No one strapped us into car seats, backward. Wearing seat belts was a suggestion, not a mandate. We gobbled down Alar-coated apples. Pregnant women smoked and drank and ate canned tuna with a clear conscience. Warning labels weren’t ubiquitous. Parents left their kids in the car while they went shopping. No one covered electric sockets with plastic so we wouldn’t come to a shocking end. And we played and experimented with mercury.
And somehow, I guess miraculously, most of us emerged unscathed.
Or have we?
Maybe we mercury-handlers are all ticking time bombs, waiting to go off; a new victim class, like the nuclear test "downwinders," that no one’s bothered to study for cancer clusters. Perhaps the terrible side effects of mercury exposure have yet to show themselves, and my generation will soon go collectively mad as a hatter, or lapse into twitching and mouth-foaming, in delayed response to our youthful indiscretions with liquid metal. Maybe this explains my short attention span, my inability to remember telephone numbers, or other personality quirks -- when all the while I blamed these on that fall off a ladder, or just haywire genetics.
Or, maybe, mercury isn’t as hazardous to humans as EPA toxicologists, studying lab rats, claim it is. It certainly doesn’t seem to warrant the sort of Keystone Kops overreaction this story details. Here's how the Idaho Statesmen described the situation:
"Two apartments are clear and residents can return.
Two garages near a driveway where mercury was found are clear.
Two apartments still have high mercury levels.
Two driveways, a patch of soil between the four-plexes, and a nearby sidewalk also contain mercury.
Clean up of the gutter along the street is complete, officials said, but testing will continue to be sure.
(An EPA official) said workers will remove about 30 cubic yards of soil and grass from the yards of the two affected residences. Excavation will continue until soil samples test clean. The soil will go to a waste disposal site in Washington.
Clean up inside one apartment, where EPA teams found mercury readings approximately seven times higher than what's considered safe, will involve removing carpet and a couch."
Despite all the alarm and expense, and the estimated five days it will take 11 EPA personnel to "clear" the scene of contamination, all seven children who came in contact with quicksilver were unharmed. And I venture to guess that they would have remained safe and healthy, and gone on to lead normal productive lives, had their possession of mercury never been discovered.
Let me suggest a non-scientific explanation for EPA's overreaction.
Whatever its original intent, the agency today exists to "protect" Americans from many hazards that are so overstated, and so statistically minuscule, that they barely merit serious attention. It exists to promulgated a never-ending stream of increasingly ridiculous regulations, in pursuit of the impossible -- a risk-free world. The agency can't perpetuate itself without needlessly scaring the crap out of people, about an ever-expanding, yet ever more trivial, list of alleged hazards. And when the agency and other elements of the anxiety industry go around alarming Americans about the alleged dangers posed by mercury thermometers, and investigating the alleged health risks from mercury fillings, etc., it's compelled to treat a little mishandled mercury in Boise as the return of bubonic plague.
Doing anything less might clue Americans in to the fact that they're being terrorized by their own government, in the form of over-hyped threats and phantom dangers.