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Mercury Poisoning (cont.)

What Causes Mercury Poisoning?

Mercury binds to sulfhydryl groups in many tissue enzymes and proteins, and thereby causes direct damage to cells and their functions. This damage can be drastic and eventually precipitate failure of organ systems such as the lungs, kidneys or the nervous system.

Outbreaks of mercury poisoning usually occur when there is an industrial release of mercury or methylmercury into the environment. The classic example of such a disaster is the contamination of Minamata Bay in Japan, where the term Minamata disease originated. Studies from about 1956 to 1960 suggested the unusual symptoms (neurological) found in people in this area could be traced back to industrial wastewater containing methylmercury. Over 2,200 people were diagnosed and over 1,700 deaths were eventually attributed to methylmercury toxicity. Mercury has been used in skin creams. The most recent problem cream was identified in 1996 from Mexico named "Crèma de Belleza-Manning."

Mercury poisoning can be caused by all forms of mercury (elemental, vapor, inorganic, and organic). Poisoning of humans can occur from inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact with the various forms of mercury.

Inhalation Mercury Poisoning

Inhalation poisoning occurs when elemental mercury is vaporized, usually in a closed indoor space, when products such as thermometers, medical equipment, valves or other products are broken open and elemental mercury escapes. Any heating of elemental mercury increases its rate of vaporization (slow vaporization occurs at room temperature) which worsens inhalation exposure.

Ingestion and Skin Contact Mercury Poisoning

Ingestion is one of the most frequent ways in which people get mercury poisoning; and mercury is most frequently ingested in the organic methylmercury form of mercury. Methylmercury (also termed methyl mercury, monomethylmercury or monomethylmercuric cation) is generated by two general processes; as an industrial production byproduct and microbially produced when elemental and vaporized mercury eventually reaches water. Unfortunately, methylmercury enters the tissues of fish (and shellfish) where it remains. The more methylmercury that is present in the environment, the higher the concentration in the fish tissue. Methylmercury is not cleared out of fish tissue; the older and larger the fish, especially those fish that eat other fish (for example, shark, sailfish, tuna, and marlin) the higher the methylmercury levels can be in their tissue. People that eat a lot of these fish may get mercury poisoning.

Inorganic mercury (for example, mercury compounds in batteries) most frequently causes human toxicity when ingested or adsorbed by the skin. Many inorganic mercury compounds are caustic (dissolve tissue).

Last Reviewed 12/13/2017

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