As opposed to the plan from Uranus

In a lifetime of klutziness, I’ve broken lots of light bulbs, even a socket or two, usually with no ill effects other than finding that one last shard of glass three weeks later. Of course, those were normal light bulbs, as distinguished from the compact-fluorescent light bulbs (they’re not even bulbous, fercrissake) that are being forced upon us. Truth be told, I’ve made my peace with the CFLs, and I have six of them installed at the palatial Surlywood estate. But sooner or later I’m going to break one, and let me tell you, that little trace bit of mercury is genuinely nasty stuff, so I’m trying my darnedest to be careful.

Some people, however, aren’t trying quite so hard:

A man and woman in southern Oklahoma were hospitalized with mercury poisoning last week after engaging in what officials said is a rare and dangerous science experiment — using mercury to pull gold from electronic equipment, apparently for profit.

Geez, and I thought I was a loose cannon in chem lab. Get a whiff of this:

Gold is found in small amounts in some electronic equipment. To isolate the gold in the circuit boards, the couple put the boards on a frying pan on their kitchen stove, said Eric Delgado, on-scene coordinator for the EPA. They poured mercury over the electronics. Mercury attached itself to the gold and helped the couple separate the precious metal from the circuit boards. The couple then heated the gold-mercury substance until the mercury evaporated, leaving only the gold behind.

And being a vapor, the stuff went straight up their noses, and they wound up in the hospital. As Darwin Award contestants go, these folks are pretty run-of-the-mill, although they might score difficulty points: this was a lot more mercury than you’ll find in even half a dozen CFLs. As for their house, redoing the interior with lead paint might actually be an improvement.

Update: The man has died, and the house has been deemed “uninhabitable.”


  1. fillyjonk »

    1 April 2008 · 8:32 am

    So now in addition to having to worry about some of the houses in my town being meth labs and blowing up, I have to worry about someone trying to make a quick buck while poisoning all the rest of us with mercury fumes?

  2. unimpressed »

    1 April 2008 · 5:03 pm

    Mercury in quantity enough to extract gold in this manner would probably cost more than the minute amount of gold extracted would return, particularly since the mercury has to be destroyed to recover the gold.

    In order for this to be profitable, the mercury would have to be used and reused until the gold-mercury solution reached saturation. There’d have to be a break-even point somewhere or the cost of recovery would be prohibitive.

    In any event, with the health hazards involved, it appears to be a lose-lose situation.

  3. CGHill »

    1 April 2008 · 5:28 pm

    You’d think so. If there were more than trace amounts of gold in PCs, PCs would almost certainly cost a hell of a lot more.

    At the very least, you’d need some sort of vapor-recovery system to trap the mercury for reuse.

  4. Fillyjonk's progress »

    1 April 2008 · 8:23 pm

    I wish this were an April Fool’s Day news story

    But as the date-stamp is yesterday, I guess it’s for real: Oklahoma couple poisoned by mercury while panning for gold in old electronic equipment. That is just a couple of towns over from me. Stop being stupid, people! Mercury is really really bad stuff!

  5. unimpressed »

    2 April 2008 · 2:42 pm

    By “trace amounts”, I’m assuming you mean the minute gold wires leading from the processor to the pin contacts in the plastic case containing the chip. Once upon a time, I tore apart a dead processor just to see what was in there. I discovered that gold really IS almost infinitely ductile as the wires are considerably smaller than a human hair. You’d get more of a return by pulling the gold flecks (they aren’t big enough to be called flakes) out of a bottle of Goldschlager. In either case, it’d be far more work that it’s worth.

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