Wetterhahn Article Incorrectly Identified Fatal Compound

To the Editor:

Your “1997: The Year in Review” section included in last Friday’s The Dartmouth mentions the tragic June death from mercury poisoning of chemistry Professor Karen Wetterhahn.

The account ends with, “Wetterhahn was most likely exposed to the toxic metal in her College laboratory when she spilled several drops of mercury last August.”

I would like to correct one part of this sentence that, if left uncorrected, could lead to a misunderstanding. Professor Wetterhahn spilled a few drops of the very rare compound dimethylmercury, not mercury itself. Mercury, in the common form of the silvery metal found, for instance, in many home thermometers, is a hazardous material that should not be treated lightly.

It is not, however, anywhere near as hazardous or toxic as dimethylmercury. A spill of a few drops of mercury should be carefully cleaned up, but such a spill of mercury would not lead to the tragic poisoning that befell Professor Wetterhahn from the very different and significantly more dangerous compound of dimethylmercury.

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