In seventh grade, our science teacher would, on rare, special occasions, let us play with mercury. This will be my edition of the crazy-things-that-used-to-be-OK stories that parents tell their kids. "You played with mercury? With your hands?" my kids will ask. Yep. It was stupid.
Where mercury is really dangerous, of course, is in the air. In 2011, the EPA proposed a new standard for the reduction of mercury pollution from power plants. (It is currently under review.) Over the weekend, 140 countries -- including the United States -- finalized a preliminary agreement to go one step further, proposing to scale back and eliminate a number of uses of mercury, including reductions in emissions from power production. From the United Nations Environment Program:
[The new reductions] range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors.
The treaty, which has been four years in negotiation and which will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October, also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury. …
Mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts including brain and neurological damage especially among the young.
Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.