Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Institut für Organische Chemie

NMR Department

Mercury Poisoning

Everyone working with organomercury compounds should read this!

The following article is found in Main Group Chemistry News 1998, 6, 29

Mercury Poisoning

Karen E. Wetterhahn, Professor of Chemistry and Albert Bradley Third Century Professor in the Sciences at Dartmouth College, died June 8, 1997 at the age of 48 from mercury poisoning.

Wetterhahn's research work involved understanding how elevated levels of heavy metals interfere with such processes as cell metabolism and the transfer of genetic information. That work was the direct cause of her death.

"Karen was the acknowledged international expert in chromium carcinogenicity," noted John S. Winn, chairman of the Dartmouth chemistry department. She began a sabbatical at Harvard in the fall of '95. The work involved doing some model compound studies involving mercury chemistry with Steve Lippard's group at MIT.

That work led to mercury NMR characterization of the model compounds with the use of dimethylmercury as this element's NMR standard. Winn relates that while preparing the mercury NMR standard in a fume hood on August 14, 1996, Dr. Wetterhahn spilled one to a few drops of dimethylmercury onto her latex glove near her thumb. Knowing that dimethylmercury was very toxic, she quickly cleaned it up. What she did not know was that dimethylemercury was so soluble that it permeated the glove instantly and penetrated her skin and was absorbed into the blood-stream. It took five months until her gait began to falter and her words slur. By the time Dr. Wetterhahn connected that laboratory spill with the damage spreading in her brain, nothing could help her. Tests showed that her body contained more than 80 times the lethal dose of mercury. Her vision narrowed to a pencil's thinness and winked out. She lost her hearing and speech and she faded into a long coma.

Dr. Wetterhahn was a most meticulous scientist, her colleagues said, taking what would have seemed to be appropriate precautions. It is an accident that could occur to any experienced chemist. This, however, is not the first fatality from work with dimethylmercury. Documented cases extend back to the early 1940's. See C & E News, June 16, 1997, page 6.

Dartmouth suggests that when handling dimethylmercury, a combination of gloves, a highly resistant laminate underneath a heavy duty, chemically resistant outer glove, should be used. Dr. Wetterhahn was the first tenured female professor at Dartmouth. She received the largest single grant to a faculty member at the college. It amounted to a seven million dollar grant to work on toxic heavy metals.

A related article (in German) may be found in the September issue, 1998, of Nachrichten aus Chemie, Technik und Laboratorium ("Blaue Blätter")

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NMR Department
Institute of Organic Chemistry
Location: Rooms U34, U35, U36
University of Erlangen-Nürnberg
Henkestrasse 42
D-91054 Erlangen, Germany
Phone +49-(0)-9131-85-22987
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e-mail: www.bauer-chemie-erlangen.de