Johnny Depp, currently seen as the “Mad Hatter” in director Tim Burton's interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, has a big fan in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which just issued a “Backgrounder” about the thespian's latest character. Ever the consummate actor, Depp's interpretation of a Hatter who had mercuric nitrate poisoning from his occupation of working with felt has the CDC taking notice.
Depp has told the Los Angeles Times that he based the erratic behavior of his character on the implications of the occupational poisoning, right down to the red hair, from prolonged exposure to an old hat-making process using mercuric nitrate called “carroting.”
“I think [the Mad Hatter] was poisoned—very, very poisoned,” Depp told the newspaper, according to the release. “And I think it just took [e]ffect in all his nerves.” So he envisioned the workplace poison “coming out through his hair and through his fingernails … through his eyes.”
Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, took the opportunity to emphasize that “society has made great progress in recognizing and controlling industrial hazards since Lewis Carroll's day … The Mad Hatter remains a cautionary figure since exposures to mercury and other hazardous industrial substances can still occur in the workplace.
“Symptoms from chronic exposures to mercury, lead, and other neurotoxic substances [in the workplace], even at low levels, may be subtle in early stages. Sometimes, they may be mistaken for symptoms that can arise from other causes,” he continues, “It is important to be vigilant about work-related illness and to act decisively to protect workers' health."
The NIOSH release goes on to describe the occupational health risks of mercury, which is still used in the electrolytic production of chlorine, the manufacture of industrial and medical apparatus, in the production of pesticides, antiseptics, and germicides—and in dental fillings. The symptoms are tremors of the hands, face, and tongue, which Depp uses in his characterization.
Wonder what NIOSH could have written about the occupational ramifications of Edward Scissorhands?