Mercury toxicity occurs when a person is exposed to mercury. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal. Short- or long-term exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems.
Mercury has several forms, including: Metallic mercury—a shiny, silver-white, odorless liquid that becomes a colorless, odorless gas when heatedMethylmercury—a chemical made up of mercury combined with carbon; mainly produced by microscopic organisms in the water and soilMercury salts—white powders or crystals formed when mercury combines with elements such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen
easily reach the brain and are more harmful than mercury salts.
Mercury toxicity may occur when you are exposed to toxic amounts of mercury due to: Breathing airborne mercury vaporsEating contaminated food, especially fish or shellfish—Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.Drinking water contaminated with mercury (rare)Practicing religious or folk medicine rituals that include mercury
Metallic mercury can be found in consumer products, such as fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, thermostats, and old thermometers. Mercury, combined with other elements, is also found in some types of dental fillings. Research has not shown that this type of filling is harmful to people. Although thimerosol is no longer used in vaccines in the United States, the mercury-containing compound is still used in some countries. Research has not shown that it is harmful to people.
Anyone can develop mercury toxicity as a result of mercury exposure. Certain people are more likely to be exposed to mercury. The following factors increase your chances of being exposed to mercury. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
Dental servicesHealth servicesThe chemical industryOther industries that use mercuryElectric meter repairEating over 6 ounces of white albacore tuna per weekEating over 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish that is considered lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfishPracticing rituals that include mercury
In addition, pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and young children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure.
Widespread Toxicity in Infant
Fetuses and young children are more vulnerable to the effects of mercury poisoning.
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Mercury can cause harmful effects before symptoms develop. It is important to contact your doctor right away if you think you have been exposed to mercury, regardless of your symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include: Redness of the extremities, chest, and nose (dusky pink hands and feet)Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Abdominal painCoughing and chest painPeeling of the hands and feetPainful extremities
TremorsChanges in vision or hearingInsomniaWeaknessMemory problemsHeadacheRapid heart beatEye irritationIrritabilityBreathing problemsPainful mouthFever and/or chillsDifficulty concentrating
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids and tissues will be tested for mercury. This can be done with: Blood testsUrine testsScalp hair analysis
The most important thing is to stop mercury exposure. Talk with your doctor about other treatments for you. Treatment options include:
Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical known as a chelating agent into the bloodstream. The chelating agent combines with mercury to help remove it from the body. Chelating agents may be given by pill or by injection.
To help reduce your chances of getting mercury toxicity, take the following steps: Avoid using metallic mercury for any purpose.If you must use metallic mercury, keep it safely stored in a leak-proof container in a secure space, such as a locking closet.Trade in old thermometers or barometers containing mercury for new ones that do not.Carefully handle and dispose of items containing mercury, such as thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs.Do not vacuum or heat spilled mercury.Teach children not to play with silver liquids.Properly dispose of old medications that contain mercury.Keep mercury-containing medications away from children.Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your local public health or natural resources department.
Limit fish intake to recommended quantities and avoid fish known to be contaminated by mercury:
Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.Eat up to 12 ounces of fish and shellfish considered lower in mercury per week. These fish include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.Eat up to 6 ounces of white albacore tuna per week.If you want to eat local fish, check to make sure the water is not contaminated. In general, limit your intake of local fish to 6 ounces.
If you spill a small amount of metallic mercury: Remove children from the area.DO NOT use a vacuum cleaner.Carefully roll the bead of mercury onto a sheet of paper or suck it up with an eyedropper.Place the bead in a bag or airtight container.Contact your local health department to find out how to dispose of the mercury and paper or eye dropper.Ventilate the room to the outside.Use fans to speed ventilation for at least 1 hour.
Kelly BC, Ikonomou MG, et al. Mercury and other trace elements in farmed and wild salmon from British Columbia, Canada.
Environ Toxicol Chem.
Oken E, Bellinger DC. Fish consumption, methylmercury and child neurodevelopment.
Curr Opin Pediatr.
Swaran JS, Pachauri V. Chelation in metal intoxication. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Jul;7(7):2745-2788.
ToxFAQs for mercury. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at:
http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=1195&tid=24. Updated October 25, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2016.
What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at:
http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm110591.htm. Updated June 10, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2016.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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