Returning guest blogger Sunny Frazier, whose first novel in the Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries, Fools Rush In, received the Best Novel Award from Public Safety Writers Association, is here today to talk about mercury and its perilous history.
The third Christy Bristol Astrology Mystery, A Snitch in Time, is in bookstores now.
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On April 18, 1906, San Francisco experienced an earthquake so intense that the city fell to its knees. A fire consumed what was left. A magnitude of 7.9, it was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles and all the way to Nevada. It destroyed 296 miles and 3,000 people were killed.
Recently I read two novels which involve the tragedy. The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner is about a mail-order Irish bride who comes to the city and marries a man who is not all he seems to be. The truth is uncovered just before everything around them crashes down. Sins are covered with debris. The rest is about the rebuilding of lives and a city.
The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs is set in modern San Francisco. Natalie Harper inherits her mother’s bookshop and care of her grandfather whose health is in jeopardy. The story continues, yada-yada-yada, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
Without spoiling the plot, I want to talk about mercury. Not only is it the silver stuff in thermometers, it was also used in radiators to warm up homes. It created warmth by heating up the water in the radiator. It also expelled a vapor of neurotoxins. Brain and nerve damage resulted. Popular in the 1900’s, these radiators were still being installed in homes built in the 40’s and 50’s. The practice went on until 1967.
Fast forward to 1972 when I enlisted in the Navy. Without much choice I was trained to be a dental tech. In dental school they taught us how to make amalgam, the stuff the dentist fills your teeth with. Amalgam consists of silver, tin, copper, zinc, and you guessed it—mercury.
Dental school neglected to tell us the stuff was poisonous. The strange, shiny drops were fun to play with. It was a liquid but rolled around in a ball. If separated, it pulled back together. We rolled it back and forth in our palms.
While stationed in Puerto Rico, I was sent to the island of Antigua along with a dentist and another tech. It was a secret base (I believed it was an underwater nuclear facility) and we were there to bring every sailor’s teeth up to par. A barber’s chair was used and negatives were processed in a blacked-out bathroom.
While unpacking supplies, the only bottle of mercury we brought fell and shattered. Scrambling on our hands and knees, we desperately tried to scoop up the quicksilver. It was tricky. Our next problem was finding more of the stuff to accomplish our mission. We wound up going into a rural town and bartering with the only dentist for a bottle. I’m sure he jacked up the price considering the U.S. military was paying for it.
I got out of the Navy and left dentistry behind in 1976. The base in Antigua closed in 1987. As far as I know we all survived mercury poisoning.