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Exposure to Mercury

People in the U.S. are mainly exposed to methylmercury, an organic compound, when they eat fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury. Almost everyone in the U. S. has trace amounts of methylmercury in their tissues. Trace amounts of mercury appear because of mercury’s widespread presence in the environment and people’s exposure through the consumption of fish and shellfish. People may be exposed to mercury in any of its forms under different circumstances.

Health Effects of Mercury

The factors that determine how severe the health effects are from mercury exposure include:

  • the chemical form of mercury
  • the dose
  • the age of the person exposed (the fetus is the most susceptible)
  • the duration of exposure
  • the route of exposure -- inhalation, ingestion, dermal contact, etc.
  • the health of the person exposed.

Mercury exists in three chemical forms (methylmercury, elemental mercury, and elemental mercury). Each chemical form have specific effects on human health.

Methylmercury effects

For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother's consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby's growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.

Outbreaks of methylmercury poisonings have made it clear that adults, children, and developing fetuses are at risk from ingestion exposure to methylmercury. During these poisoning outbreaks some mothers with no symptoms of nervous system damage gave birth to infants with severe disabilities, it became clear that the developing nervous system of the fetus may be more vulnerable to methylmercury than is the adult nervous system.

Symptoms of methylmercury poisoning may include:

  • impairment of the peripheral vision; disturbances in sensations ("pins and needles" feelings, usually in the hands, feet, and around the mouth)
  • lack of coordination of movements
  • impairment of speech, hearing, walking
  • muscle weakness. People concerned about their exposure to methylmercury should consult their physician.

Mercury and Cancer. No human data indicate that exposure to any form of mercury causes cancer, but the human data currently available are very limited. Mercuric chloride has caused increases in several types of tumors in rats and mice, and methylmercury has caused kidney tumors in male mice.

Elemental mercury effects

Elemental (metallic) mercury primarily causes health effects when it is breathed as a vapor where it can be absorbed through the lungs. These exposures can occur when elemental mercury is spilled or products that contain elemental mercury break and expose mercury to the air, particularly in warm or poorly-ventilated indoor spaces.

Symptoms of elemental mecury poisoning include:

  • tremors
  • emotional changes (e.g., mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness)
  • insomnia
  • neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching)
  • headaches
  • disturbances in sensations
  • changes in nerve responses
  • performance deficits on tests of cognitive function

At higher exposures there may be kidney effects, respiratory failure and death. People concerned about their exposure to elemental mercury should consult their physician.

Effects of other mercury compounds (inorganic and organic)

High exposures to inorganic mercury may result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys. Both inorganic and organic mercury compounds are absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and affect other systems via this route. However, organic mercury compounds are more readily absorbed via ingestion than inorganic mercury compounds.

Symptoms of high exposures to inorganic mercury include:

  • skin rashes
  • dermatitis
  • mood swings
  • memory loss
  • mental disturbances
  • muscle weakness

People concerned about their exposure to inorganic mercury should consult their physician.

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