Mercury poisoning or metal poisoning is a medical condition caused by exposure to mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal occurring in several forms. It is a metal that you see in thermometers. Mercury is widely used in dental fillings and batteries. Products made with mercury, such as mercury salts, are used in some skin lightening creams, antiseptic creams and ointments.
The metal can mix with other elements to make inorganic mercury compounds or “salts”. It also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. Methylmercury, the most common organic mercury compound, is formed by small organisms in the water and soil, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says.
Methylmercury can build up in the tissues of fish, with bigger and older fish showing increased levels of it. Inorganic mercury can be released into the air by manufacturing plants and burning coal, and mining ore deposits and waste also contribute to atmospheric mercury.
You can be exposed to mercury if you breathe in tainted air or if you eat food or drink water contaminated with it. Exposure can also occur through dental and medical treatments. High levels of mercury in the body can cause damage to the brain and kidneys.
Exposure to mercury
You could have increased chances of exposure to mercury by being in the following situations.
- Eating fish or shellfish that has been contaminated with methylmercury
- Inhaling contaminated air from spills, waste incinerators and the burning of fuels containing mercury
- Exposure to the release of mercury from dental work and health treatments
- Being around or in contact with mercury for work or other reasons
All forms of mercury can have an impact on the nervous system – vapors of methylmercury and metallic mercury are especially dangerous as they can lead to more of the metal reaching the brain. High levels of mercury in the body can cause severe and permanent damage to the brain, kidneys and developing fetuses.
Symptoms of mercury impacting brain functioning include memory issues, irritability, tremors, shyness and changes in vision or hearing.
Being exposed to high levels of mercury vapors even for a short time can cause nausea, lung damage, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rashes, an increase in blood pressure or heart rate and eye irritation.
Children are especially susceptible to mercury. It can pass from a mother to unborn child or even to a baby through breastfeeding. Complications that arise from a fetus being exposed to mercury include brain damage, mental retardation, poor coordination, blindness, seizures and the inability to speak.
Helping prevent exposure
- You should know about mercury poisoning and how it can be prevented. Be careful with products that contain mercury. Handle them with care and dispose of them correctly. Products include thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs.
- If you see that a big amount of mercury has been spilled, contact an expert to deal with it.
- Do not let children play with products that contain the metal or any shiny, silver liquids.
- Throw out medicines that contain mercury if they are past their expiry dates. Keep mercury-containing medicines away from a child’s reach.
- Pregnant women and children should avoid going into places where liquid mercury has been used.
If you feel you have been at risk and might suffer from high mercury exposure, there are tests you can undergo to check the mercury levels in your body.
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