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The dangers of mercury

Last Updated: 29.11.21


You’ve most probably heard that mercury is a dangerous substance if you get exposed to it. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about this topic, then this article comes at the right time.

Before getting into what the dangers of mercury are, let’s take a moment and talk about it in general and what the potential sources of contamination are since there might be some things that could use some clarifications.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element

Mercury is part of what nature gave us by default and it exists in the air, water, and soil. It occurs naturally in our planet’s crust and it’s released into the environment through volcanic activity.

However, human activity is one of the leading causes of mercury releases, through coal-fired power stations, coal burning for residential heating and cooking, waste incinerators, other industrial processes, as well as mining for gold, mercury, and other metals.

There are several types of this substance you can encounter, as these are: elemental (or what is known as metallic), inorganic (through occupational exposure), and organic (to which we are exposed through food). Of course, all of these forms have different degrees of toxicity and effects on health.  


How you can get exposed

The story goes like this. The mercury is released into the environment, and from there it can be transformed into methylmercury through bacteria. Methylmercury is the organic form that we can ingest through our diet, and it’s toxic.

Then another process takes place which is called bioaccumulation and which occurs when an organism contains higher concentrations of a certain substance than its surroundings. Methylmercury bioaccumulates in fish and shellfish.

However, this is not the end of the story, as this process goes further and biomagnifies since nature follows its course. Large predatory fish eat the smaller ones, and the result is that they are more likely to ingest, and therefore contain, higher levels of mercury. Smaller fish also acquire some mercury by ingesting plankton.

As stated above, people can be exposed to various types of mercury, depending on the circumstances. However, the main contamination occurs by eating fish and shellfish containing high levels of the substance. Unfortunately, cooking the food does not eliminate mercury; therefore it’s not a solution in this case.

Another main source is occupational, as workers can inhale elemental mercury vapors created by industrial processes.

Sensitive groups

Two types of people are more commonly sensitive to the effects of mercury. The first ones are fetuses, and they are the most susceptible to developmental issues.

If a fetus is exposed to methylmercury in the womb, which can occur due to the mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish, the baby’s brain and nervous system can be affected. The substance’s primary health effect is an impaired neurological development.

Cognitive thinking, attention, language, memory, and fine motor and visual spatial skills can be affected for those children who have been exposed to methylmercury as fetuses.

The second group that is sensitive consists of those people who are regularly exposed to high levels of the substance. Chronic exposure can occur in populations that rely on fishing to survive or for people who are occupationally exposed.

When it comes to fishing populations, studies have shown that between 1.5/1000 and 17/1000 children developed cognitive impairment caused by the consumption of fish that contained mercury. These numbers applied to countries such as Brazil, Canada, Columbia, China, and Greenland.


Mercury exposure health effects

Both elemental and methylmercury are toxic and can affect the central and peripheral nervous systems. Inhaling mercury vapors can have harmful effects on the immune, digestive and immune systems, as well as on kidneys and lungs.

The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive and can affect the eyes, skin, and gastrointestinal tract. They can also lead to kidney toxicity if ingested.

After a significant exposure either through ingestion, inhalation or through the skin, neurological and behavioral disorders can be observed. These symptoms include headaches, memory loss, cognitive and motor dysfunctions, tremors, or insomnia.


The type of exposure matters

Right now it seems like the unthinkable, but doctors in the late 19th century were giving patients significant amounts of mercury to drink in order to treat intestinal obstructions.

Although this is by no means advisable, it does lead to the understanding that there’s a significant difference between drinking mercury or being exposed to vapors. Inhalation is more damaging because the invisible particles get straight into the lungs, and from there into the blood system.

Effects on fertility

Recent studies have shown a correlation between high levels of mercury contained in the body through seafood consumption, and otherwise unexplainable infertility phenomena in women or abnormal analysis results in men.

To prevent all of these effects, you can follow the recommendations made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration on which types of fish and seafood are least contaminated and try eating only those.


Prevention measures

Of course, you might be wondering what can you do to avoid getting exposed to this substance. One thing would be to identify all the potential sources that might be right now in your home and make sure they are safely kept.

For example, older underarm thermometers contain mercury in liquid form that, if the instrument gets broken, is potentially dangerous since it vaporizes at room temperature. When that happens, the air is filled with invisible particles that can quickly be absorbed by the body.

The vaporization process takes longer in the case of mercury, so if it gets into cracks and corners and is left there, you can be exposed for days, weeks, or even longer periods.

Another obvious thing to do is to avoid eating seafood during pregnancy, to prevent any contamination that might reach the womb. Once the baby is born, you might want to look into getting one of those safe and useful pediatric thermometers to prevent any type of unfortunate events.

If you suspect any contamination, you should see your doctor, take all the necessary tests, and then, if needed, undergo a dedicated protocol to cleanse your body from it.



Ioana Moldovan

Ioana’s professional experience in the optics field has helped her understand the value of passing her knowledge forward. Her curious personality helps her gather useful information for her readers and her goal is to make technical information fun and accessible to everyone.

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