We live in a mercurial world, and that’s not a good thing. Although mercury (Hg) is a naturally occurring element—found in the air, water, and soil—exposure to it, even in small amounts, causes serious health problems for adults and children. Mercury has toxic effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems as well as on the lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes. It is a threat to the healthy development of a fetus and young child.
Until scientists and physicians recognized mercury as detrimental to health, it had been used in medicines and industrial applications. 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 are much more informed about the risks of exposure to mercury and 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.
Health risks are wide-spread and sometimes hard to trace. But research keeps uncovering more conditions that may in part be affected by mercury in the body. For example, a study presented at the 2017 American Academy of Neurology conference reported that, “Findings from a preliminary study showed that among persons who ate fish and seafood regularly, those in the top 25th percentile for an estimated annual mercury intake had a more than two-fold increased risk for ALS compared with those with lower levels.” ALS, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a chronic, progressive, fatal neurological disease.
What is mercury?
Mercury exists in several forms, including liquid metal (quicksilver), vapor, and in organic and inorganic compounds. It is released from the Earth’s crust through volcanic activity and through coal-burning and industrial processes.
Problems that arise from mercury exposure stem from a combination of factors: amount/dose, method of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, skin contact), and 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; and through accidental/occupational exposure to industrial waste.
5 Ways to Minimize Mercury Exposure
- Read labels for mercury content. Keep thermometers, fluorescent bulbs, and mercury-containing products out of reach of children.
- Do not handle a leaky battery with bare hands. Wear gloves.
- Contact your local environmental protection office for instructions on safe disposal of products containing mercury and other heavy metals.
- Talk with your dentist about alternatives to amalgam fillings.
- To avoid ingesting toxic levels of methylmercury from seafood. Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. More information on safe seafood can be found here.
- 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/