Mercury – toxicity, side effects, diseases and environmental impacts

Thursday, November 23, 2017 by

Mercury is a naturally occurring element present in soil, water, and air. Its elemental symbol “Hg” is taken from its Greek name of “hydrargyrum”, a word that means “liquid silver” and is a reference to the shiny surface that this element is known for.

It exists in a variety of forms, namely metallic, inorganic, and organic; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), all of these forms have varying degrees of toxicity.

List of known side effects

The biggest risk associated with mercury is mercury poisoning, a type of metal poisoning that results from exposure to this element. The symptoms of mercury poisoning vary, depending on the frequency of exposure, the dose of mercury encountered, and its form. According to, the symptoms of mercury poisoning from elemental and vaporized mercury exposure are:

  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Muscle atrophy and/or twitching
  • Nervousness
  • Tremors
  • Weakness

Higher doses will lead to more serious health issues, namely respiratory failure, kidney malfunction, and even death, in some cases.

Contact with organic mercury usually occurs via ingestion. The mercury poisoning that results from this will usually manifest through:

  • Peripheral vision impairment
  • Stinging sensations in the mouth and extremities
  • Loss of coordination
  • Muscle weakness
  • Speech and hearing impairments

Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the effects of organic mercury. This element can cause fetal neurological development problems such as reduced ability in thinking, short attention spans, and decreased motor skills. These problems have been observed in children, even if their mothers showed none of these symptoms.

Mercury is just as harmful to other organisms as it can persist in the environment and has the potential to accumulate in the bodies of other organisms, primarily those that live in bodies of water. As such, mercury has been listed as a Pollutant of Concern in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Great Waters Program.

Body systems affected by mercury

If swallowed, inorganic mercury can cause numerous complications for different organs and organ systems. The digestive system, for example, can sustain heavy damage from this element, as small amounts of inorganic mercury are absorbable by the intestines and can dissolve intestinal tissue, while large amounts can lead to bloody diarrhea. Moreover, absorbed mercury can spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver, muscles, and brain.

If inhaled, mercury can damage the lungs, kidneys, and central nervous system. Breathing in mercury can cause chest pains, dry cough, chemical pneumonitis (lung inflammation), dyspnea (shortness of breath), pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs), and respiratory failure.

If dermal contact occurs, then skin rashes or contact dermatitis may happen.

Items that can contain mercury

Mercury is a highly useful element that continues to widely utilized in a variety of industries and applications. Its ability to conduct electricity, for example, means that mercury can be found in the electrical switches of thermostats, doze alarm-type alarm clocks, and compact fluorescent light bulbs.

The compactness and high density of mercury has made it popular for use in scientific measuring instruments like thermometers and barometers. However, due to the health risks associated with this element, mercury fever thermometers have become less common in recent years, and 13 American states have limited the manufacturing, sale, and/or distribution of this kind of thermometer.

Other items known to contain mercury include but aren’t limited to:

  • Batteries
  • Dental amalgams
  • Skin-lightening products
  • Pharmaceuticals

One highly toxic form of mercury is known as methylmercury, an organic form of mercury. Exposure to this usually occurs through the consumption of fish and shellfish. Methylmercury concentrations tend to be higher in fish that eat other fish, namely:

Meanwhile, the mid-range methylmercury fish are:

  • Chilean sea bass
  • Grouper
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Tuna

How to avoid mercury

As per, there are numerous steps that can be taken to minimize exposure to or contact with mercury. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Choosing other paints over those made from latex or oil as these tend to contain some traces of mercury. Old paints of these varieties should be dropped of at a facility that specializes in hazardous waste.
  • Choosing composite and ceramic tooth fillings over amalgam ones. Amalgam fillings are loaded with mercury and should be avoided as much as possible.
  • Avoiding any items that contain mercury, namely button cell batteries, fluorescent lights, compact fluorescent lamps, mercury barometers, and thermometers.

Those who are involved in the handling and supplying of mercury can take extra measures to minimize exposure, such as:

  • Keeping mercury away from water sources, sewers, and sources of ignition like sparks and flames.
  • Promptly cleaning up mercury spills using a specialized vacuum cleaner. For added protection, wear chemical cartridge respirators with full facepieces.
  • Working with mercury in adequately ventilated areas that have non-porous floors.

Where to learn more


Mercury is a highly dangerous element that can cause all kinds of health complications depending on its form, the size of the dosage, and length or frequency of exposure. In general, however, mercury has been known to target the kidneys, respiratory, digestive, and central nervous systems. Mercury poisoning can cause any of these organs great amounts of harm. Bloody diarrhea, muscle weakness, developmental problems, chemical pneumonitis, and renal failure are just some of the health risks associated with mercury.

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