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Mercury Poisoning

What is Mercury Poisoning?

  • Mercury is an element that is found all over the earth, in soil, rocks, and water. Even trace amounts can be found in the air. The largest deposits on earth are as cinnabar (mercuric sulfide). Mercury exists in several forms such as a liquid metal (quicksilver), as a vapor, and in compounds (organic and inorganic). Scientifically, the symbol for mercury is Hg and its element number is 80.
  • Mercury has been used for centuries as a medicine, to make amalgams, and in many industrial applications. Eventually, scientists, physicians and others realized the various forms of mercury caused health problems. The phrase "Mad as a Hatter" originated in the 1800's from the observation that people (hatters) who used mercury to process felt for hats often developed mental changes.
  • The problem with mercury is that if humans are exposed to it, depending on the amount (dose), route (ingestion, skin contact, inhalation), and duration (time) of exposure, mercury can be toxic to humans.
  • Some elemental and chemical forms of mercury (vapor, methylmercury, inorganic mercury) are more toxic than other forms. The human fetus and medically compromised people (for example, patients with lung or kidney problems) are the most susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury.
  • Although various forms of mercury can cause some different symptoms, the effects that are most toxic occur in the brain and nervous system.
  • There are numerous items that contain mercury in its various forms that can cause a toxic exposure. They are present in many workplaces and in the home. For example, coal burning power plants emit mercury (the highest source of mercury put into the air), home thermometers, "button" batteries, the new energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs, and seafood (shellfish, tuna, marlin and many others). Such items are all potential sources of mercury poisoning. However, guidelines are available for the prudent use, consumption and disposal of items containing forms of mercury.
  • Following guidelines can reduce or eliminate toxic mercury exposures.
Last Reviewed 12/13/2017

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