We live in a mercurial world. However, it’s not a good thing. Mercury (Hg) is a naturally occurring element. It is found in the air, water, and also in the soil. However, exposure to it, even in small amounts, causes serious health problems for both adults and children. Mercury has toxic effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. It’s also dangerous to the lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes. It is a threat to the healthy development of a fetus and young child.
Mercury was used in medicines and industrial applications until both scientists and physicians recognized it as detrimental to health. In the 1800s, the phrase “mad as a hatter” originated from the mental health changes observed in hatters who used mercury to process felt for headwear. Today, we know more about the risks of exposure to mercury and also its detrimental effects on health. Although many other metals can be problematic, the World Health Organization considers mercury one of the top 10 chemicals that are a major public health concern.
Types and Forms of Mercury
This chemical exists in several forms, including liquid metal (quicksilver), vapor, and in both organic and inorganic compounds. It is released from the Earth’s crust through volcanic activity and also through coal-burning and industrial processes.
Problems that arise from exposure stem from a combination of factors: amount/dose, method of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, skin contact), and also the length of exposure. We are all exposed to low levels of mercury to some degree. Exposure can occur through contaminated drinking water, foods grown in contaminated soil, a diet high in mercury-laden fish/shellfish, medical procedures (dental, vaccination), and also through accidental/occupational exposure to industrial waste.
6 Ways to Minimize Mercury Exposure
1. Read labels for mercury content. Keep both thermometers and fluorescent bulbs, and other mercury-containing products out of reach of children.
2. Do not handle a leaky battery with bare hands. Wear gloves and also remember to wash your hands thoroughly.
3. Contact your local environmental protection office for instructions on safe disposal of products containing mercury and other heavy metals.
4. Talk with your dentist about alternatives to amalgam fillings.
5. To avoid ingesting toxic levels of methylmercury from seafood, do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. However, I do recommend that you eat a variety of other fish about twice a week.
6. When considering vaccines for yourself or a child (also including the flu vaccine), ask the physician about mercury content. (Most vaccines are no longer using the mercury-containing component thimerosal.)
EMedicine Health. “Mercury Poisoning.” Reviewed June 6, 2014. http://www.emedicinehealth.com/mercury_poisoning/article_em.htm
González-Estecha, M., A. Bodas-Pinedo, MÁ Rubio-Herrera, et al. “The Effects of Methylmercury on Health in Children and Adults; National and International Studies.” Abstract. Nutricion Hospitalaria 30, no. 5 (November 1, 2014): 989-1007. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25365002
Raimann, X., L. Rodríguez, P. Chávez, and C. Torrejón. “Mercury in Fish and Its Importance in Health.” Abstract. Revista Médica de Chile 142, no. 9 (September 2014). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25517058
World Health Organization. “Mercury and Health.” Updated September 2013. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs361/en/