Chapter 3 (Excerpt): Lethal Effects of Heavy Metal Poisoning
A Look Back in History: HMS Triumph
In order to illustrate the devastatingly lethal effects of heavy metal poisoning, let us for a moment look back to the year 1810.
At that time, mercury was a valuable commodity, and large amounts were used to purify gold and silver ores. Mercury was also used in industries such as gilding, plating, mirror making, and hat manufacturing, and was prescribed for the treatment of infectious diseases such as syphilis. Spain had virtual control of the mercury market because cinnabar (mercury sulfide) mines were plentiful in Spain as well as in Spanish America. The cinnabar was smelted and made into what was then called "quicksilver" -- what we know today as liquid mercury or elemental mercury.
In 1810, Britain, Spain, and Portugal formed an alliance against Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies as the French were attempting to gain control of Spain, partly to ensure naval access to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. On March 4, 1810, a hurricane hit the Spanish port of Cadiz and the flood surge that followed stranded many Spanish ships close to the French-controlled shore. One of the stranded ships, La Purisima Concepcion, had in its hold a very large shipment of quicksilver originating in South America.
During several nights, British sailors in longboats were able to remove 130 tons of the liquid mercury, which they placed aboard two ships: HMS Triumph and HMS Phipps. The mercury was stored in large leather bladders, which were placed in iron-hooped strongboxes on the lowest deck of each vessel. Unfortunately, the leather eroded and many tons of mercury flooded through the holds of the two ships. Because mercury was such a precious commodity, many enterprising sailors concealed as much of it as they could.
Over the following weeks, 200 of the 650 men on board the Triumph presented with symptoms and signs of mercury toxicity. These included copious salivation, oral ulcers, partial paralysis, tremors, pulmonary congestion, various bowel complaints, skin eruptions, gum problems and loss of teeth. The ship’s surgeon and purser were among the most severely affected because they bunked beside the mercury storage area. Three men succumbed from pulmonary disease and two from facial gangrene. All the animals on the ship died.
The Triumph was thoroughly cleaned several times, and 8000 pounds of mercury-contaminated biscuits were thrown out. Even so, a fine metallic powder continued to accumulate, and on the ship’s next voyage in June 1810, 44 sailors became seriously ill. Ship’s surgeon, Henry Plowman, correctly deduced that mercuric vapors were affecting the crew. He ordered increased ventilation to the lower deck and no further cases of mercury poisoning occurred; nevertheless, the ship never sailed again. An eyewitness to these distressing events draws a straightforward conclusion: "Conversing with several officers of the British Navy on the subject, I was induced to believe that the accident proceeded altogether from the ignorance of all those concerned.” From the outset, ignorance about the effects of mercury and its vapor were indeed chiefly to blame for the catastrophe.
This historical event illustrates how seriously health can be altered and even destroyed because of toxic exposure. Of course, most people who come to my clinic have not had such a severe and acute exposure as the sailors on board the Triumph. Nonetheless, the vast majority have had ongoing, low-level exposure to toxic substances, and, over many years, such exposure can produce results not dissimilar to those experienced by the unfortunate sailors.