Karen Wetterhahn went home to her husband and two children. She should have gone straight to the hospital. For the dimethylmercury that had landed on her glove had penetrated the latex and then her skin and was already beginning a slow, unseen journey into her blood and into her brain.
But how could she have known this? There were no visible holes in her glove. The dimethylmercury, clear like water but three times as dense, hadn’t burned or otherwise announced itself as it seeped into her skin. Even the wetness of the drop or two would have been indistinguishable from the clamminess that builds up inside rubber gloves. There was no reason for Karen Wetterhahn to think that she had been exposed to dimethylmercury.
There’s a report from the early 1950s ... of a one-ton spill of the stuff. It burned its way through a foot of concrete floor and chewed up another meter of sand and gravel beneath, completing a day that I'm sure no one involved ever forgot. That process, I should add, would necessarily have been accompanied by copious amounts of horribly toxic and corrosive by-products: it’s bad enough when your reagent ignites wet sand, but the clouds of hot hydrofluoric acid are your special door prize if you’re foolhardy enough to hang around and watch the fireworks.
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