The Legend of Korra- Mercury Poisoning
Avatar the Legend of Korra is the sequel to the acclaimed Avatar the Last Air Bender. While neither of these shows held much interest for me, they are well known in the anime community as both were heavily influenced by anime and Asian culture. It is also sometimes called an American Anime. My reason for discussing it today is that in the climax of season 3 of Avatar the Legend of Korra, the hero of the story, Korra, is poisoned with mercury.
Mercury is one of the chemical anomalies that fascinated early mystics, alchemists, and later chemists. This is so because mercury is a transition metal that is liquid at room temperature, and is 1 of only 2 elements that is liquid at room temperature, the other being bromine.
It also happens to be extremely toxic and The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration currently limits airborne exposure to mercury compounds to 0.1 mg/m³ over an 8-hour period. Unfortunately, humanity was not always aware of how toxic mercury is and it has actually been used as a medicine in the past. The ancient Chinese thought that mercury could extend a person’s life, and some emperors of China took mercury pills to extend their life. From the 17th to the 19th century it was used in a medicine called Blue Mass, which was 33% Mercury. It was mainly used as a treatment for syphilis, but it was also recommended for tuberculosis, constipation, toothache, parasitic infestations, and labor pain.
Warning: American Cartoon Content
I know it’s not anime but there was no way that I could talk about mercury and not talk about the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll in 1865 and later turned into a Disney animated film. The iconic Mad Hatter is thought to have been inspired by hatters, or people who make hats. Mercury was used in the making of felt hats during the Victorian era in which Lewis Carroll lived. According to one source I found human urine was used to soften the hair used to make felt. Apparently in France a worker was taking a Blue Mass pill for syphilis which caused mercury to be present in the worker’s urine.
What does all of this have to do with the Mad Hatter? The mercury improved the felt-making process and the use of mercury was soon added to the process. This caused the workers to be exposed to vapors that had compounds containing mercury, which slowly poisoned them over time. The symptoms included flamboyant behavior, mood swings, excessive drooling, and other neuroglial problems. Hence the term mad as a hatter, which was part of the common lexicon at the time Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland.
American Cartoon content over
How was Korra Poisoned?
In episode 38 of The Legend of Korra, Korra is captured by the Red Lotus, who basically want her, and the Avatar state she holds, dead. Their plan is to poison her with elemental mercury, which is highly poisonous to Korra and her avatar state (and most other living things as well). They accomplish this by using metal bending (think Magneto’s powers, or metal telekinesis) to basically inject Korra with a large amount of elemental (liquid) mercury.
The lethal dose for mercury varies by the type of mercury (elemental or combined in a compound) a person is exposed to and how the person was exposed (ingested, inhaled, etc). In Korra’s case the metal was essentially injected into her body, about which there is little data as it is not a common method of exposure. What can be said is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a risk from mercury poisoning the body that way as human cells do not readily absorb elemental mercury. The real problem is due to the fact that the mercury does not dissolve into the blood stream. Thus, droplets of mercury would act like emboli, (clotted blood), and block blood vessels. This is a problem as the clotted blood (or mercury) will get stuck in the smaller vessels, causing things like heart attacks or strokes.
Sorry, Korra, but given the amount of mercury you were injected with, you are probably dead from an embolism. Now to be fair, what if the mercury were injected into the muscle and soft tissue instead of the blood, which would remove the risk of an embolism? However, it still would not be readily absorbed by the body. In this case the mercury injection would result in an inflammatory response as the body reacts to a foreign substance, in this case mercury, entering the body.
I have to say that this one did not turn out quite the way I expected it to as I figured I would be getting to the finer details of mercury poisoning. However, there are two possible outcomes, but both have the same result.
1- If the mercury is injected into the blood stream, Korra dies from an embolism, which means that Avatar the Legend of Korra is busted, since she survives.
2- If the mercury is injected into Korra’s muscles, Korra survives, and the side effects would be much less than what is shown in Avatar The Legend of Korra, because the elemental mercury would not be absorbed by her body’s cells. So the show is busted because of her extensive symptoms and recovery time.