Mad as a Hatter: Mercury and Other Occupational Hazards at the Movies

Posted on by James Kesner, PhD

movie production parapheneliaBy day, I conduct occupational safety and health research at NIOSH. But on Tuesday nights, I join my friends from NIOSH and the outside world as we head for one of Cincinnati’s local art cinema houses to watch and then discuss movies. Most the time we seek out smaller foreign or independent films. But we made an exception when we recently saw Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. We were drawn, not only to the promise of sumptuously creative visuals and evaporating cats, but also, in a small way, a reference to our vocation in the movie.

Why is the Mad Hatter mad? His erratic agitated behavior in this classic story refers to a real industrial hazard in Lewis Carroll’s Britain of 1865 (hat-making was the main trade in Stockport, near where Carroll grew up). In those days, hatters commonly exhibited slurred speech, tremors, irritability, shyness, depression, and other neurological symptoms; ergo the expression “mad as a hatter.” (Clearly, Carroll’s Mad Hatter does not express all these symptoms; he is not shy.) The symptoms were caused by chronic occupational exposure to mercury. Hatters toiled in poorly ventilated rooms, using hot solutions of mercuric nitrate to shape and convert fur into felt hats.

In a 24 December 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Johnny Depp, who portrays Burton’s Mad Hatter, is quoted as saying that he was aware of the implications of the Hatter’s behavior: “I think [the Mad Hatter] was poisoned—very, very poisoned. And I think it just took [e]ffect in all his nerves. It was coming out through his hair and through his fingernails, through his eyes.” In the new movie, Depp’s Hatter has flamboyantly red hair. This presumably reflects the character’s chronic exposure to an orange-colored solution containing mercuric nitrate that was used in a process called “carroting.”

While the process of using mercury in hat manufacturing ended nearly 70 years ago, mercury continues to be used in many industries such as the production of chlorine and caustic soda, manufacture and repair of industrial and medical apparatus, and in manufacturing fluorescent lights. Information on preventing hazardous exposures to mercury on the job can be found on the NIOSH Mercury topic page.

Hat makers exposed to chemicals (1938)
Hat makers exposed to chemicals (1938)

Those of us in occupational safety and health continue to work to protect workers and their families exposed to known and emerging workplace hazards. While we strive for a system of protections that will prevent a modern-day hatter infliction, workers in the U.S and around the world continue to face daily hazards in the workplace. In 2007, a total of 5,488 U.S. workers died from occupational injuries and another 49,000 annual deaths are attributed to work-related diseases each year. About 4 million private-sector workers had a nonfatal occupational injury or illness in 2007. Direct and indirect costs of medical care and lost productivity for American workers is estimated to exceed $225 billion annually, for afflictions ranging from injuries to hearing loss to respiratory impairment to reduced fertility (my specialty).

Occupational Safety & Health in the Movies

The Mad Hatter and his illness are one example of how the real problems faced by working people find their way into the movies as either the main story line (Norma Rae), a secondary theme (The Yearling), or as a real life outcome of making the movie (The Wizard of Oz)—a favorite example of NIOSH Director, John Howard. During the making of that movie, Buddy Ebsen, originally cast as the Tin Man, had to be replaced after coming down with severe shortness of breath which was diagnosed at the time to be an “allergy” to the aerosol (powder) application of his tin oxide makeup. Ebsen was replaced by actor Jack Haley whose “tin” makeup was then applied as a paste.

Movies have the power to bring the plight of a few before the eyes of many. Through this blog we are collecting favorite occupational safety and health-related movies. Our goal is to post a Top 10 list. One of my personal favorite OSH movies is Modern Times, in which Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp contends with the hazards in his workplace, as Chaplin the actor undoubtedly did while making the movie. Indeed, Chaplin was injured while making Easy Street when he was hit across the bridge of his nose by a streetlamp when struggling with the lamp and the Bully.

Another film that I love, but which also unknowingly has a potential OSH connection is Breaking Away, the story of a love-sick competitive bicycler. Our NIOSH group has demonstrated the perils to sexual function in men and women who are bicycle patrol police as well as to competitive and recreational bicycle riders using saddles with a nose.

Mary Poppins highlights the very first occupational cancer attributed to a chemical. In 1775, “scrotal cancer of chimney sweeps” was attributed to soot. The intervention of the time, better bathing requirements, was strikingly effective. The causative agent was shown, 150 years later, to be 3:4-benzpyrene in coal tar.

You get the idea. So, please add your favorite movie or show support for one already mentioned in the comment section below. Many thanks.

See the sequel OSH in the Movies: This Time It’s Personal  and the full list of movies including the user feedback here.

Dr. Kesner is a research biologist in the NIOSH Reproductive Health Assessment Team in the Division of Applied Research and Technology.

Posted on by James Kesner, PhD

52 comments on “Mad as a Hatter: Mercury and Other Occupational Hazards at the Movies”

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    I would like to add “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest” starring Jack Nicholson. From a perspecitve of the caregiver and violance in the workplace when dealing with challenged patients.

    I would like to nominate “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” for the violence which occurs in the prison system. Officers and employees are faced with a multitude of dangerous situations which could cause serious injury, illness and death……

    Dear Dr. Kesner,
    Kudos to NIOSH for the creative link of the new Alice in Wonderland film to mercury toxicity and occupational health. And thanks to you for this post. My nomination for an occupational safety-related film is Jurassic Park. A worker is pulled into a cage and killed in the opening scene.

    The family (in Costa Rica) threatens to sue the owners of the Park. So they hire an expert (a paleontologist) to declare the Park safe. The rest of the movie flows from that…

    I look forward to seeing the rest of the entrys.

    ..and don’t forget the attention that Wile E. Coyote gave to product defects (ACME didn’t have a great track record)… …but seriously, terrific post, Dr. Kesner. There was a rather obscure movie about ten years ago that starred Joe Pesci (“With Honors,” I think) where he discussed how he had worked in a place where he was exposed to asbestos and developed asbestosis as a result, which was weakening his heart and lungs. Also, some sports-themed movies have shown the wear-and-tear those folks put on their bodies, “The Wrestler” being a good example.

    Remember Silkwood? Whistleblowers may not meet quite her fate but are treated poorly in general.

    As Bing Crosby sang the signature song in “White Christmas” (1954) a stage hand was overhead dumping asbestos on him.

    Excellent list, Dr. Kesner. Here are a few nominations:

    Milk: this is an example of violence in the workplace, as Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor, and George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor, get shot by Dan White, another city supervisor.

    Children of Men: not sure if this is really occupational, but it is reproductive toxicology, which is your area. It’s also science fiction, so that may not count. The premise of the movie is that women stop getting pregnant all at once and humanity faces the prospect of its own extinction.

    Glengarry Glen Ross: Stress in the workplace. Real estate salesman cope with the prospect of getting fired.

    October Sky: Mostly about boys shooting rockets, but it does deal with the dangers of coal mining.

    Use of hazard themes in movies is useful in workshops. I use an ice breaker asking participants to identify their favorite “hazmat” movie. The list includes:

    ◦China Syndrome-A reporter finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant (1979)
    ◦Civil Action-The families of children who died sue two companies for dumping toxic waste: a tort so expensive to prove, the case could bankrupt their lawyer.(1999)
    ◦Creature from the black lagoon-A scientific expedition traveling up the Amazon River encounter a dangerous humanoid amphibious fish creature (1954)
    ◦Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde-Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde (1931)
    ◦Erin Brockovich-An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.(2000)
    ◦Last man on earth-Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the only survivor of a devastating world-wide plague due to a mysterious immunity he acquired to the bacterium while working in Central America years ago. He is all alone now…or so it seems (1964)
    ◦Omega Man-Robert Neville, a doctor, due to an experimental vaccine, is the only survivor of an apocalyptic war waged with biological weapons. The plague caused by the war has killed everyone else except for a few hundred deformed, nocturnal people calling themselves “The Family”. The plague has caused them to become sensitive to light, as well as homicidally psychotic.(1971)
    ◦Outbreak-Extreme measures are necessary to contain an epidemic of a deadly airborne virus. But how extreme, exactly?(1995)
    ◦Silkwood-The story of Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant who was purposefully contaminated, psychologically tortured and possibly murdered to prevent her from exposing blatant worker safety violations at the plant.(1983)
    ◦Song of the Canary-The powerful story of the hidden dangers in the American workplace.(198?)
    ◦Them!-Nuclear tests in the desert result in the growth of gigantic mutant ants who menace cities in the American south-west as a team of investigators and the army search for a way to control their spread in this Cold War-era monster film. (1954)
    ◦Toxic Avenger-This is the story of Melvin, the Tromaville Health Club mop boy, who inadvertently and naively trusts the hedonistic, contemptuous and vain health club members, to the point of accidentally ending up in a vat of toxic waste. The devastating results then have a transmogrification effect, his alter ego is released, and the Toxic Avenger is born. (1985)
    ◦Virus-An electronic alien lifeform takes over a research vessel, and plans to wipe out humanity (1999)
    Of course there are others. It is a great way to start a workshop.

    Steve Schrag
    SEIU Eastern Region Hazmat Program Coordinator

    I nominate Cinema Paradiso — an sweet and nostalgic Italian film that centers on a young boy and his mentor, the projectionist at the local cinema in post-War Sicily. The highly flammable cellulose film catches fire and the projectionist saves the boy but is suffers horrible injuries.

    In addition to an occupational safety hazard, there may be a child labor violation in there too!

    If you haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend renting it. — I’m in the DOL Solicitor’s Office and enjoy the blog!

    Okay, it’s not a movie, but one of my favorite filmed scenes related to occupational health was in the “then and now” episode of television’s St. Elsewhere (a better era for TV, I think). In the “then” segment, the hospital administrator was advising the custodian/handyman not to scrimp on that lifesaving fire insulation. He said something like “be sure to spread it nice and thick up there” as he walked under the worker with his head in the ceiling crawlspace. In the “now” segment, of course, the same worker was back, being treated for asbestosis, and declaring “I thought I could trust you to keep me safe!”

    “The Wizard of Oz” had several other workplace injuries: Margaret Hamilton, the actress playing the Wicked Witch of the West, was severely burned in a scene where she disappeared in a puff of smoke. Toto was even injured and unable to work for two weeks after he was stepped on by a crew member.

    Steve McQueen, who starred in many action movies, died of mesothelioma, very likely due to his exposures to asbestos during his work in the construction industry. A good account can be found at:

    Christian Bale’s character in “the Machinist” is suffering from mental health issues which cause him to be distracted at work. This results in him being involved in an incident that causes his coworker to lose his arm.

    Besides that, Christian Bale starved himself for 4 months for the role, eating only an apple and a cup of coffee a day. He lost over 60 lbs to get down to 120 lbs (he wanted to drop down to 90 lbs but his doctor discouraged him). After that film, he quickly bulked back up to play his role in “Batman Begins.”

    Actors frequently put themselves at risk for physical and mental health issues while preparing for roles. Jamie Foxx suffered panic attacks and bouts of paranoia because he feared he was losing his mind preparing for his role in “the Soloist.”

    Martin Sheen suffered a stress-related heart attack while filming “Apocalypse Now.” Also, Francis Ford Copola lost 100 lbs. during the filming of that movie due to stress.

    Cool blog! I’m enjoying everyone’s comments!

    What a blog! It is great indeed. Actually you forced me to rethink and revisit some of the films (from India). In fact there is a huge selection of Indian films (Hindi, Bengali, Tamil) that I can name, those portraying exposures to occupational hazards and their consequences. One of my favorites is Bagh Bahadur (Tiger Lord): A village dancer dressed up as a tiger (Bagh in Bengali) and portraying as a tiger earning livelihood. An age old tradition in rural India. Eventually the man faces steep competition from the Circus tiger (resembling urbanisation of the rural India). Finally out of frustration he challenged the tiger in a dual and got killed. – The film faithfully portrays the occupational stress associated with performing arts in a changing world where the concept and value of ‘entertainment’ changes.

    Another one is ‘Deep Jeley Jai’ (Lighting the Candles I Go) where a health care worker (nurse) in a mental hospital is exposed to psychological stress and eventually turned into a patient herself.

    However, I think the best example of stressfull working conditions would be this year’s Oscar Winner. The tremendous mental and physical stress that the military faces in Iraq and in other parts of the world has been depicted in such poetic manner is unbelievable.

    I nominate Twilight Zone: The Movie.

    Actor Vic Morrow and two young Vietnamese immigrant children died on the movie set when pyrotechnic explosions caused a helicopter to lose control and crash on them. As a result of this tragedy, state of California child labor laws were reformed as were safety regulations on movie sets.

    I nominate EMT/Paramedic work. Therefore I nominate “Bringing out the Dead” with Nicolas Cage. Serious back problems and/or injuries that occur on a regular basis in the field despite training have caused this field to have a life span of about 5 years. These injuries often occur because of lack of bariatric equipment to handle the large increase in morbidly obese/obese patients, short staffing, car accidents and violence from patients. Just awhile back someone I used to work with ended up with a crushed pelvis while attempting to lift a 500+ plus patient into the bariatric stretcher with his team.

    The film “42nd Street” is one of the all-time classics in film musicals. Nominated for best picture in 1934, its coreographer was Busby Berkeley. The film has an interesting final image: a drawing of a threatre curtain that has come down, marking the end of the musical. In large letters across the curtain is the word “ASBESTOS.” A safety curtain is used in large theatres to prevent uncontrolled fires on stage from reaching the audience. It can be lowered at any time in an emergency. Until the 1970’s, those curtains were made of asbestos. The appearance of the word “asbestos” on such a curtain may have been an indication to audiences in the 30’s that they were in a safe facility. That may explain why it appears in the film.

    The list is impressive, which makes me think of 3 elements:

    1. Are the movie makers mindful of the actual hazards exposed in their movies, or do they just follow the script/story while enhancing it? Or, is ‘Us’ (the public health ‘fanatics’ who expose the hazards because of our ‘professional distortion’?

    2. My vote for a movie is “Immortal Beloved”, portraying Bethoven composing his masterpieces while suffering prgressive hearing loss. The movie also protrays his aggrsive behavior, which was probably due to lead poisoning. In fact, exposure to lead poisoning during childhood, may also cause hearing loss.

    In fact, hearing loss is a problem seldomely exposed in the movies. Paradoxically, the movie industry itself directly (sound in movie theaters) and indirectly (sound tracks) contributes to this problem.

    3. Another movie industry related occupational hazard is violence in the society. Only yesterday in S. Florida, a 16 yo girl was beaten by a 15 yo boy style ‘Clockwork Orange’. What are we doing about it?

    I’ve worked for NIOSH’s mining and commercial fishing safety programs, so the mention of October Sky and Perfect Storm are ones I’m familiar with.

    For myself, there are two movies that I always remember showcasing the occupational hazards of the characters. The first was Men of Honor (2000) starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as a Navy salvage diver. The movie discusses the hazards of underwater construction and salvage but ultimately shows Gooding getting severely injured while standing on the deck of a barge in a “safe” situation.

    The second is a more light hearted movie from 1986 called Gung Ho!. It deals with the culture clash (both nationally and occupationally) that comes when a Japanese car manufacturer takes over a U.S. auto factory. One scene that sticks out in my mind was a worker getting his arm entangled in some machinery and the conflict that arose from having to stop the line to deal with the injury.

    If you want to see a good movie about the occupational culture of hard rock miners I would suggest watching “You Are My Sunshine” (NIOSH pub. # 2002-132d). It’s a video that talks about the events surrounding the 1972 Sunshine Mine fire that killed 91 miners as recalled by interviews with 20+ survivors.

    I’ll nominate Paul Schrader’s “Blue Collar”, where an autoworker (played by Yaphet Kotto) dies from spray paint inhalation.

    How about Matewan (John Sayles), violence, union organizing; Blackboard Jungle (teacher sexual assault).

    Pushing Tin . . . Air traffic controllers . . . I don’t really remember the plot, but I do remember the stress. I also remember wondering how accurate the movie was in terms of the controllers’ freedom to “push tin,” i.e., direct planes in dangerously close take-off and landing patterns in order to stay on flight schedules . . .

    Staying with the mining theme, one not mentioned yet is the Molly Maguires, starring Sean Connery. For realism underground — James Earl Jones teaching a rookie how to test the roof when underground (drummy sound, not good) — of course is Matewan.

    On a lighter note, my all-time favorite “workplace stress” movie would have to be Office Space.

    I would nominate the 1970’s film “Sometimes a Great Notion” starring Peter Fonda and Paul Newman which is about a family logging company in the Pacific Northwest. The film shows how dangerous logging was (and still is).

    Think of how many lives would have been saved if cigarettes were never in the movies. I have been promoting the electronic cigarette now for a few months and am trying to get a hollywood studio to put one in one of their movies. I think that people’s lives would change as mine has because of it. Thank you for this great article and keep up the good work.

    A few good movies that come to mind:

    1.) October Sky – the story of a family growing up in a coal mining town where injuries and worker fatalities are common.

    2.) Blood Diamond – a heart-wrenching account of workers in Africa who are forced to mine for diamonds for rogue militants trying to make money on the backs of workers.

    3.) Tommy Boy – O.K. so there’s only one scene that comes to mind that is pretty funny where Chris Farley gets hit in the head as he’s walking through a factory and he’s trying to weave through moving machinery and doesn’t quite make it and gets knocked in the head. It just goes to show how not taking safety seriously in a manufacturing setting can lead to harmful consequences!

    The first movie that came to my mind for this topic was 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”, a film about the oil boom in the early 1900’s in Southern California. The movie portrays the awful conditions under which oil workers had to work at the time. Worker fatalities (such as an oil well worker being crushed by falling equipment) and injuries (hearing loss due to explosions) are themes throughout the film. Incidentally, this film was loosely based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair, who also wrote “The Jungle”, well-known for describing food and workplace safety conditions in the meat-packing industry in the early 20th century.

    Metropolis comes to mind for me. It is a German film released in 1927 and directed by Fritz Lang. It is a silent, science fiction movie that is placed in the future city of Metropolis. It expands on the industrial revolution depicting the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism. There are two social groups above ground management and below ground workers. Many issues of worker violence and injury occur, such as when a massive machine (M-Machine) explodes killing many workers.

    One of my all time favorties is Erin Brockovich.
    This is a great blog! Thank you.

    “Metropolis” is the earliest example I’m aware of (1927, silent). Workers are depicted very much as dehumanized cogs in the machine. The pace of work is grueling and completely machine-driven. The machines are not designed to fit people, so over-reaching and other ergonomic issues abound.

    The Insider – El informante (hispanoamerica), dirigida por Michael Mann en 1999, con Al Pacino y Russell Crowe el caso real de una tabacalera condenada por la justicia por anadir sustancias aditivas al tabaco que incrementaban su poder adictivo.

    English translation: The Insider (El informante in Latin America) directed by Michael Mann in 1999, with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, the true story of a tobacco company legally convicted of adding substances to tobacco to increase its addictive power.
    (Provided by Pietra Check)

    Don’t forget “Towering Inferno” (1974) — depicts hazards faced by firefighters battling skyscraper fires.

    What a nice, tidy little blog.

    I am afraid I am going to make it less tidy by throwing into it another occupational hazard; volence at work, this will explode the list of movies involving policemen, bankers (poor bankers), shopkeepers, FBA, and CIA agents and even presidents who fell victims to this ubiquitous hazard.

    James – I find that sci-fi movies inspire us to seek out better ways of life, before the dystopia evolves. Most predominately in my mind are “Tank Girl”, “A Boy and His Dog” and “The Matrix. I did write something recently on my blog post for Earth Day, comparing our ideal earth to taking “the blue pill” in The Matrix. Thanks for your post and for having a look.

    JeanMarie Calvillo, Ph.D., Regulatory Specialist

    I love Star Trek but thinking about Alice Krige’s (Borg Queen) make-up requirements, including those hellish, mirrored contact lenses, always make me cringe in pain. I’m sure that the wonderful actors in “First Contact” were subjected to rashes, and respiratory and other mucous membrane damage from the demanding costumes and make-up they had to endure, to create the sci-fi magic of the Star Trek Universe.

    I recommend “Manufactured Landscapes” by Jennifer Baichwal, a documentary about Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs. The first scene is particularly memorable as the camera takes a very long walk down an industrial aisle past multiple assembly lines in a Chinese factory.

    Could you publish a final list of all the films recommended in this blog? This could be a great tool for trainers and educators.

    I also recommend a blog that addresses books in which working conditions are described.

    Dear Lisa and all you other wonderful bloggers,
    Thank you for your insightful, abundant, and diverse input. We are in the process of compiling and tabulating all the movies you have suggested with the hope this list will be an interesting and useful resource for you and your colleagues. In addition, I am working with colleagues and friends to compile some manner of a Top 10 List from your suggestions. We will post this list soon and ask you to vote for your favorite movies on it with the hope of creating an ultimate Top 10 Must-See Occupational Safety and Health-Related Movie List. So please stay tuned. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to make last minute additions, such as the very non-literary occupational risks associated with being “The Ghost Writer.”

    Movies like Silkwood, World Trade Center, and Erin Brockovich opened our eyes to the dangers with dealing with these chemicals. In a way it enables the average joe to understand the gist of it. This got me wondering on how make-up used to contain mercury,lead and other chemicals. From the ancient Egypt until the 1950’s in which make-up was marketed in a big way and popularized by the golden age of hollywood actresses.

    To my knowledge, mercury is not addressed directly in “Alice In Wonderland,” be it the book or any of the cinematic versions. However, it is solidly documented that mercury causes neurological symptoms, and that the hot solutions of mercuric nitrate used in the past by hatters to shape fur into felt hats left them “mad as hatters.” Ergo, the film’s Mad Hatter is widely considered, including by Mr. Depp, to be the victim of this occupational exposure.

    “The Devil’s Miner”, a documentary about chld labor in a Bolivian silver mine (1985). Near the end of the film, an older worker acknowledges the dangers of his work, but expresses pride in that he does his work well.

    “Decent Work” an ILO documentary, available online. (I can’t find the link right now, I hope it is available.)

    I like the references of the Mad Hatter hair of mercury. Made it very topical with Johnny Depp quotes. I think the Mad Hatter might just be mad cause he had to wear big hats all the time. Nice article!

    I loved the movie Mary Poppins, but I didn’t know that it highlights the very first occupational cancer attributed to a chemical called “scrotal cancer of chimney sweeps”.

    I also nominate I nominate Twilight Zone: The Movie.

    Diane, sorry for any confusion. I don’t think the film “Mary Poppins” actually “highlights” the scrotal cancer, but rather the occupation that exposed chimney sweeps to the soot that caused the cancer.

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