When I was in grade school, I went to a dentist (I'll call him Dr. X) in downtown Juneau. He was "old school," still using what I refer to as a "jack hammer drill," when other dentists were beginning to use the much gentler air drills. Despite his drill, Dr. X. was nice, but his assistant, who was also the receptionist, played "bad cop" to his "good cop." I remember her slapping my white knuckles when I had them clamped to the arm of the chair during one of those drilling sessions. "Don't squeeze so tight," she said. "You have to relax." Yeah, sure!
Anyway, Dr. X had a supply of mercury, also known as quicksilver, as all dentists did back then, to make those mercury amalgam fillings that lots of modern dentists are removing from our mouths, saying they are not safe. (I know that the ADA disagrees. I don't intend to get into that debate here.) So, after one somewhat traumatic dentist visit, Dr. X was kind enough to try to appease me by giving me a little bottle of mercury to take home and play with. The silvery blob was about the size of a pea. I loved playing with it -- rolling it around on a table, and breaking it up by squishing it with my finger, then pushing it back together into a single ball. It was also great fun to rub it onto a dime or a quarter, and watch it bond with the coin, making it shinier than when it was new.
I can't even tell you what eventually happened to that first blob of mercury (now that's a scary thought), but one day I was telling my fourth-grade friend, Joyce B., what fun mercury was to play with. She wanted to try it, too. So, after school, we went up to Dr. X's office, together, and sweetly asked him if we might "buy" another blob of mercury from him. He laughed, pulled his jar full of mercury (it was very heavy!) from a cabinet and dropped another pea-sized ball of it into a small vial for us. He said there was "no charge."
Joyce and I spent the afternoon playing with it, and then, when it was time for Joyce to go home, we had to decide how to share the little silvery blob. We decided, rather than dividing it, to have "shared custody." Joyce would take it home that night and bring it to school the next day; then I would take it home, and so forth. But the next day, Joyce came to school without the mercury, and with a severe case of fury. She told me that her parents said that I had to buy her a new gold ring. She had played with the mercury the night before, wearing a little gold band that her Grandma had given her. The mercury bonded to the ring and ruined it.
If destroying one gold ring was the only consequence of our experimentation, I now know we should be thankful. Here's what Jim Lehrer had to say on the subject, in a 2005 Newshour Extra special for students:
"Mercury, shiny, silver and odorless in its elemental form, is toxic. When released it breaks up into tiny beads that can be inhaled or ingested, causing shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even death. It is especially harmful to the brains and nervous systems of children."Back then Joyce and I (and a lot of other kids) played with this fascinating, but toxic, substance, in ignorance; and Joyce and I were spared, by God's grace, any serious side effects. But we all know better these days. Be sure your kids or grandkids don't get their hands on any quicksilver.