Info for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

ECOfreak: Mysteries of Mercury

William and Mary's Mercury Sustained Global Inquiry Group (these groups are collaborative explorations of topics with global significance that stretch across disciplinary borders) is gearing up for the culmination of years of study, travel and collaboration with their upcoming International Mercury Expo at William and Mary.

The title for their inquiry group program is Mercury: a Hazard Without Borders. They had me at mercury.

I sat down and talked with expo Executive Producer Adam Stackhouse and as he explained the plan for the expo I thought, what a great way to engage people - even people with no background in the sciences - with a topic that should really matter to them. If you eat seafood or use CFL bulbs, or use power from a power station, mercury is a part of your life.

We read stories about mercury here and there in the news. Faculty members and students do research on it, various individuals have been hurt by its effects, and communities around the world have had their share of devastating mercury-related problems, but the inquiry group is about to bring all these discussions (and more) together on one weekend (Earth Day weekend, April 22-25), with every discipline offering its own perspective on the issue.

On the inquiry group Web site, they explain the idea behind the expo very well: "Mercury is an unusual metal with a long history of usefulness and peril to humans.

"From Minamata, Japan, to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, in Latin American gold mines and Chinese coal-burning power plants, mercury is an environmental hazard that does not recognize national borders. Mercury's transboundary pollution raises economic, legal, social, health, and policy issues around the globe."

At the expo, there will be talks and presentations by local professors and experts as well as visitors from abroad on many every day ways that mercury touches our lives - one talk will be on mercury levels in fish and how safe (or not) fish are to consume; one will likely be about the proposed coal-fired power plant in Surry, which will release tons of mercury into the local environment; there will also be a discussion on mercury in dental fillings.

Another topic of discussion will focus on the Minamata disaster in Japan - I was going to post a short YouTube clip about it, but there are some pretty disturbing images that might not be right for everyone. Feel free to search for yourself if you aren't familiar with the story, but the short version is that decades ago a town in Japan with a factory that released large amounts of mercury into the nearby water had terrifying impacts on local health.

Aileen Smith, wife of famed American photojournalist Eugene Smith, will also be at the expo. She'll be opening an exhibit of her late husband's photos of residents stricken by "Minamata Disease," the mercury poisoning I just described. The couple lived in Minamata in the early 1970's just to bring the disease to the public's attention; his photo essay and subsequent book of the victims has become world-famous.

This alone makes the expo worth going, whether you're a tree-hugger or not.

Also fun on the artistic-side of the expo will be a new play by the travelling troupe and their mobile stage, the Virginia Theater Machine (who you might recall from their successful show on Merchants Square last year).

They'll be unveiling their newest show, tentatively titled "Speed the Plow, but Think Twice About the Tuna."

Here's their blurb on it: "This project is inspired by the media frenzy following the actor Jeremy Piven when he quit the performance of the Broadway run of David Mamet's play Speed-the-Plow because of mercury poisoning associated with the actor's sushi heavy diet.

"As of this posting, the verdict is still not out on how this story ends.  Other elements being woven together include:  conflicting opinions about tuna consumption; the relationship of mercury emissions and coal fired electric power plants (of much timely interest in the State of Virginia); the fact that electronic waste (CPU's, Monitors, Keyboards, etc) is a fast growing component of the municipal waste stream and not only adds to the volume of trash but contain toxins including mercury; the 1930's radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air by John Houseman and Orson Wells, famed for their broadcast of HG Wells The War of the Worlds."

I am totally going to be the first in line for this show.

Want to attend some (or all) the various events at the weekend-long Mercury Expo? It will be centered mainly in and around the Sadler Center on April 22 through the 25, with most of the public-centered events happening Friday through Sunday. Aside from the talks and programs I just described, there will be many presentations and displays around Sadler, and some other fun things to do (related to mercury, of course).

The "Fact or Fiction" panel discussion topic is on mercury and seafood (if you eat lots of tuna, maybe you should go. Even if you don't, you should go.)

Take a look at the schedule here, and keep in mind there are many events that are free and open to the public, and some that are open to the public but require a paid ticket.

Something not on this list that's going on concurrently is a series of mercury-related films running for free at Kimball Theater in Merchant's Square the same weekend. You'll have to check their Web site closer to the date for details.

Any questions? Want to be a sponsor? Want to apply to share a presentation? Email Adam Stackhouse

Web site for the week
This week, I've already added tons of links in the blog. I'll leave you with this video about the Expo - enjoy!

Tip for the week
Go to the mercury expo! A more fun task than the ones I usually suggest - just mark your calendars now, so you have some time set aside. It'll be a busy eco-holiday weekend!