Mercury Toxicity(Mercury Poisoning)by Krisha McCoy, MS
DefinitionMercury toxicity occurs when a person is exposed to mercury. Mercury is a naturally occurring metal. Either short- or long-term exposure to mercury can cause serious health problems. If you think you have been exposed to mercury, contact your doctor immediately.
Mercury has several forms, including:
Metallic mercury and methylmercury are better able to reach the brain and more harmful than mercury salts.
CausesMetallic mercury is the liquid metal that was once used in most thermometers. Most new thermometers are being manufactured with less toxic indicators. Mercury is also used in other common consumer products, including:
Mercury gas is released into the atmosphere by certain natural processes (fires, volcanic explosions). It is released in much greater amounts by the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. Once in the atmosphere, mercury can travel for thousands of miles before finding its way into the ocean or fresh water bodies. Once in or near the water, mercury is transformed by bacteria into the chemical methylmercury. The methylmercury formed in the water and soil by bacteria may build up in the tissues of fish. Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.
Mercury toxicity may occur when a person is exposed to toxic amounts of mercury due to:
Risk FactorsA risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. 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:
In addition, pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and young children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury exposure.
Widespread Toxicity in InfantFetuses and young children are more vulnerable to the effects of mercury poisoning.
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SymptomsThe nervous system is very sensitive to the effects of mercury. Exposure to mercury can result in:
Mercury can cause harmful effects before symptoms develop. It is important to contact your physician immediately if you think you have been exposed to mercury, regardless of your symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include:
Damage from mercury passed from a mother to her unborn fetus may include:
DiagnosisYour doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Tests may include the following:
TreatmentTalk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options include:
Chelation TherapyChelation therapy involves putting a chemical, or 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.
For recent ingestion, the doctor may induce vomiting, pump out the stomach (gastric lavage), or give polythiol resins to bind with the mercury.
PreventionTo help reduce your chances of getting mercury toxicity, take the following steps:
If you spill a small amount of metallic mercury (eg, a broken thermometer):
If you find a larger amount of metallic mercury (eg, a jar of metallic mercury), call your local health department for professional assistance in safe and appropriate disposal. If any amount of mercury greater than that found in a fever thermometer spills, call for help and immediately leave the area of the spill until responsible and prepared authorities arrive to assist in cleanup. If your health department is unavailable, your fire department may be able to provide emergency assistance or connect you with the local “Hazmat” team.